Carl Zimmer, an elegant peacock among science writers, delivers this lesson on where bird feathers came from. The shared anatomy between dinosaurs and birds extends beyond the wishbone to their equally functional and extravagant plumage. Recent fossil finds give us hints about the colors and forms that adorned some prehistoric reptiles, from frilly crests to fuzzy proto-wings.
Dinosaurs didn’t take to the air for tens of millions of years after the first feathers showed up, and we don’t yet know exactly how that happened. But we know that the evolution of these delicate, beautiful and functional forms carried some dinosaurs aloft to a higher branch on the tree of life, and from that branch lept the first bird.