Hopp and Orsen 2018
bring a novel and well documented hypothesis to light: “Here we present evidence gleaned from our studies of a number of fossils that possess hind-limb feathers, as well as two examples of nesting Citipati. Two well preserved individuals sitting on nests with large egg clutches (IGM-100/979, IGM-100/1004) clearly demonstrate a lack of complete coverage of the eggs by the animals’ bodies and limbs. We previously showed that pennaceous feathers would have aided the coverage of eggs near the ulna and manus. We also noted a deficiency of egg coverage at the rear quarters laterally adjacent to the pelvis and tail. Here we demonstrate how pennaceous feathers, recently described on the tibiae and tarsi of several non-flying theropods and some primitive birds as well, could have served very effectively to cover eggs in these rear quarter positions.”
Excellent hypothesis. But…
Zheng et al. 2013 also studied this problem. They wrote, “parallel pennaceous feathers are preserved along the distal half of the tibiotarsus and nearly the whole length of the metatarsus in each hindlimb [of Sapeornis]. The feathers are nearly perpendicular to the tibiotarsus and metatarsus in orientation and form a planar surface as in some basal deinonychosaurs with large leg feathers.”
Zheng et al. 2013 also report similar leg and/or foot feathers are found in
“Basal deinonychosaurians (= Microraptor), the basal avialan Epidexipteryx, Sapeornis, confuciusornithids, and enantiornithines. In these taxa, the femoral and crural feathers are large, and in most cases they are pennaceous feathers that have curved rachises and extend nearly perpendicular to the limbs to form a planar surface.”
The distribution of foot feathers
in theropods in the large reptile tree (LRT, subset Fig. 2) is shown in blue (cyan). Few included taxa preserve feathers. The question is: do foot feathers appear, then disappear, then reappear? Or do all intervening taxa have foot feathers?
Back to the brooding question:
Citipati is an oviraptorid and oviraptorids are outside of the occurrences of foot feathers in theropods in the LRT. Note: all specimens with foot feathers are a magnitude smaller than oviraptorids. Hopp and Orsen do not differentiate (in their abstract, I did not see their presentation) between tibial feathers and foot feathers. Citipati nests outside of the current phylogenetic bracket for foot feathers. Tibial feathers have a much wider distribution in fossils. Tibial feathers are more likely to be present in Citipati, but note: tibial and foot feathers are not present in Caudipteryx (Fig. 3) an oviraptorid sister in the LRT .
Back to the question of pennaceous hind limb feathers in pre-birds:
Here’s one answer, perhaps convergent with the presence of large uropatagia in flapping, but non-volant fenestrasaurs (like Cosesaurus Fig. 4). And look at the long legs and large uropatagia of the basalmost pterosaur, Bergamodactylus (Fig. 4)! It was just learning how to flap and fly and could use a little aerodynamic help in keeping steady.
When pre-birds, like Anchiornis,
and other convergent theropods, like Microraptor, first experimented with flapping and leaving the ground, they were necessarily new at it, not perfect at coordinated symmetrical flapping. Perhaps pre-birds used a bit of aerodynamic stabilization in the form of hind limb feathers as they phylogenetically became better and better at flapping, then flying. Tibial and foot feathers may have provided that aerodynamic stability, acting like vertical stabilizers in most airplanes. Exceptionally, present-day flying wing-type airplanes no longer require a vertical stabilizer because computers assist the pilot in controlling the aircraft, just as modern birds control flight without vertical stabilizers. That’s because modern birds with unfeathered feet have established neural networks not present or only tentatively present in pre-birds.
Hopp TP and Orsen MJ 2018. Evidence that ‘four-winged’ paravian dinosaurs may have used hindlimb feathers for brooding.” SVP abstracts.
Hu D, Hou L, Zhang L and Xu X 2009. A pre-Archaeopteryx troodontid theropod from China with long feathers on the metatarsus. Nature 461(7264):640-3. doi: 10.1038/nature08322.
Longrich N 2006. Structure and function of hindlimb feathers in Archaeopteryx lithographica. Paleobiology 32 (3), 417-431
Xu X and Zhang F 2005. A new maniraptoran dinosaur from China with long feathers on the metatarsus. Naturwissenschaften. 92(4): 173–177.
Zhang F-C and Zhou Z-H 2004. Palaeontology: Leg feathers in an Early Cretaceous bird. Nature 431, 925(2004). doi:10.1038/431925a
Zheng X-T et al. 2013. Hind wings in basal birds and the evolution of leg feathers. Science 339:1309-1312. DOI: 10.1126/science.1228753