Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Evolution: Complex Flight Feathers Just Happened?

It might be hard to believe that the common raven’s (Corvus corax) feathers just happened.

Joel Kontinen

"Stuff happens but we don’t know why," might be an apt description of assumed evolutionary innovations such as complex flight feathers.

A recent paper in Nature Communications begins with these words:

Adaptation of feathered dinosaurs [sic] and Mesozoic birds to new ecological niches was potentiated by rapid diversification of feather vane shapes. The molecular mechanism driving this spectacular process remains unclear.”

They don’t know why these feathers appeared. Then they attempt to give a jargon-filled explanation:

"Here, through morphology analysis, transcriptome profiling, functional perturbations and mathematical simulations, we find that mesenchymederived GDF10 and GREM1 are major controllers for the topologies of rachidial and barb generative zones (setting vane boundaries), respectively, by tuning the periodic-branching programme of epithelial progenitors."

This is followed by more jargon, until they dish out an orthodox Darwinian explanation:

Incremental changes of RA gradient slopes establish a continuum of asymmetric flight feathers along the wing, while switch-like modulation of RA signalling confers distinct vane shapes between feather tracts. Therefore, the co-option of anisotropic signalling modules introduced new dimensions of feather shape diversification.”

Next, the birds figured out new uses for their feathers:

Major novel functions of feathers that evolved include endothermy, communication, aerodynamic flight and so on. These are achieved through stepwise retrofitting of the original feather forms.”

The authors invoke a “self-organizing branching programme,” as if feathers were no more complex than snowflakes.

However, as we can learn from the real world, stuff does not just happen without a good reason.

Feathers bear all the hallmarks of design.

It is logical to believe that birds already had complex flight feathers on the day they were created.


Li, Ang et al. 2017. Diverse feather shape evolution enabled by coupling anisotropic signalling modules with self-organizing branching programme. Nature Communications 8:14139.