Palaeontologists have wondered for over a hundred years – how did dinosaurs evolve flight and become birds? To find the answer, researchers built a robot dinosaur!

Flying requires lots of physical adaptations, including wings and feathers. However, we know from fossils that many feathered dinosaurs couldn’t fly. What did they use their feathered arms for? The robot-building researchers have an answer: scaring tasty bugs and making them easier to catch!

To test their hypothesis, the international team designed their robot to be like Caudipteryx, a peacock-sized, insect-eating dinosaur closely related to birds. Then they programmed the robot to scare insects by waving its arms and tail. Importantly, they also made feathers for its arms and tail, that could be taken on or off.

Next, the researchers took their robot dinosaur for walks in the park, looking for grasshoppers. After lots of tests, they found that feathers made the robot almost twice as effective at scaring grasshoppers!

This experiment shows that dinosaurs with larger and stiffer feathers would be better at scaring, catching and eating insects. Over tens of thousands of years, these longer, stronger feathers might become flight-worthy. Then it’s only one small step before dinosaurs could take to the skies as birds.

Winged robot dinosaur on wheels with city scape in the background.

This robot dinosaur is scary (for grasshoppers, at least)
Credit: Jinseok Park, Piotr Jablonski et al.

Caudipterix had feathers and ate insects
Credit: Wikimedia commons/Christophe Hendrickx CC BY-SA 3.0

2 responses

  1. Elizabeth Biegel Avatar
    Elizabeth Biegel

    I’d like to know how scientists determined if the grasshoppers were scared or not.

    I also would like to know if they have considered the feathers as a means of protecting the dinosaur’s skin from insects and/or as means of collecting insects which they would preen each other of as a source of food or part of their caretaker habits?

    1. Ariel Marcy Avatar
      Ariel Marcy

      Great questions! The scientists recorded whether the grasshoppers hopped away from the robot. This behaviour is called flushing and it can make prey easier to identify and then catch. The scientists changed things about the robot – for example, if it had feathers or not – and compared how often the grasshoppers hopped away.

      You make an excellent point that there may be other reasons to evolve feathers. The scientists in this study were only focused on pennaceous feathers, the specialised ones required for flight. Their question was Why would feathers evolve to be long and rigid? Less specialised feathers for protection, preening or temperature control would have evolved before pennaceous feathers and so the considerations you bring up are outside the scope of the study. They are still important questions and I think it’s still an open question why feathers evolved in the first place.

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