Scientists have embarked on a prehistoric journey, deploying a metallic robot named Robopteryx to delve into the origins of the Caudipteryx dinosaur, which roamed the Earth around 125 to 122 million years ago during the Early Cretaceous period.
The robotic dinosaur, equipped with small feathered wings, aims to shed light on the evolutionary transition of certain dinosaurs developing feathers before achieving flight.
In a study published on January 25 in Scientific Reports, researchers led by Sang-im Lee, an integrative animal ecologist at the Daegu Gyeongbuk Institute of Science and Technology in South Korea, conducted experiments using Robopteryx. The robotic dinosaur, resembling the ancient Caudipteryx, was flapped to assess whether early-winged, flightless dinosaurs evolved wings for prey-related purposes, with grasshoppers serving as test subjects.
Lee proposes that utilizing plumage to flush out prey could have enhanced the frequency of chases, emphasizing the significance of proto-wings and tails in effective pursuit. This, in turn, might have led to the evolution of larger and stiffer feathers, facilitating more successful pursuits and visually striking flush displays—a strategy observed in some contemporary birds, such as the greater roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus).
In the experiments, the researchers observed that when a wingless version of Robopteryx approached grasshoppers, fewer than half of the insects reacted. However, in a separate trial where wing-like structures made of black paper were added to Robopteryx, 93% of the grasshoppers fled. This suggests that proto-wings could have played a crucial role in uncovering prey, akin to the strategy observed in certain present-day birds.
While the quantitative testing of hypotheses is appreciated, Jingmai O’Connor, an associate curator of fossils at the Field Museum in Chicago, raises a critical point. In an interview, O’Connor notes the lack of actual evidence that non-volant (flightless) feathered dinosaurs with protowings, like Caudipteryx and Anchiornis, were insectivorous.
Highlighting her 2019 analysis on the evolution of the avian digestive system, O’Connor points out that Caudipteryx primarily consumed plants, and Anchiornis had a diet consisting mainly of lizards and fish. The robotic exploration, though intriguing, leaves room for further investigations into the dietary habits of these ancient creatures.