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Q Rev Biol. 2002 Sep;77(3):261-95.

The evolutionary origin and diversification of feathers.

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Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and Natural History Museum, University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas 66045, USA.


Progress on the evolutionary origin and diversification of feathers has been hampered by conceptual problems and by the lack of plesiomorphic feather fossils. Recently, both of these limitations have been overcome by the proposal of the developmental theory of the origin of feathers, and the discovery of primitive feather fossils on nonavian theropod dinosaurs. The conceptual problems of previous theories of the origin of feathers are reviewed, and the alternative developmental theory is presented and discussed. The developmental theory proposes that feathers evolved through a series of evolutionary novelties in developmental mechanisms of the follicle and feather germ. The discovery of primitive and derived fossil feathers on a diversity of coelurosaurian theropod dinosaurs documents that feathers evolved and diversified in nonavian theropods before the origin of birds and before the origin of flight. The morphologies of these primitive feathers are congruent with the predictions of the developmental theory. Alternatives to the theropod origin of feathers are critique and rejected. Hypotheses for the initial function of feathers are reviewed. The aerodynamic theory of feather origins is falsified, but many other functions remain developmentally and phylogenetically plausible. Whatever their function, feathers evolved by selection for a follicle that would grow an emergent tubular appendage. Feathers are inherently tubular structures. The homology of feathers and scales is weakly supported. Feathers are composed of a suite of evolutionary novelties that evolved by the duplication, hierarchical organization, interaction, dissociation, and differentiation of morphological modules. The unique capacity for modular subdivision of the tubular feather follicle and germ has fostered the evolution of numerous innovations that characterize feathers. The evolution of feather keratin and the molecular basis of feather development are also discussed.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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