Scientists Use Robot Dinosaur to Uncover Origins of Birds’ Plumage

SEOUL, South Korea – Researchers in South Korea have developed a robot called Robopteryx to shed light on the origins of birds’ wings and tails. In a study published in Scientific Reports, the scientists describe how they used the robot to test their hypothesis that dinosaurs used their feathered appendages in threatening displays to flush out prey.

Before the evolution of true flight, some dinosaurs developed feathered forearms and tails, but the purpose behind these adaptations has long been debated. The South Korean team proposed the “flush and pursue” strategy, suggesting that dinosaurs used their feathered appendages to scare insects and other prey out of hiding.

To test this theory, the researchers observed the grasshoppers’ reactions when Robopteryx performed different wing and tail movements. They found that the grasshoppers were more likely to flee when the robot deployed its wings and added white patches to its black wings. The addition of large tail feathers also increased the insects’ likelihood of fleeing.

The scientists believe that these flush displays trigger ancient escape circuitry in the insect brain, causing them to run. This behavior could have driven the evolution of larger and stiffer feathers in some feathered dinosaurs. However, some scientists remain skeptical of this idea, suggesting that feathered dinosaurs may have used their half-formed wings for gliding rather than as threatening displays.

The development of Robopteryx provides researchers with a unique way to study dinosaur behavior, which is otherwise difficult to infer from fossilized remains. By mimicking the movements of dinosaurs like Caudipteryx, this robot allows scientists to replicate and observe how these ancient creatures may have interacted with their environment and prey.

The research conducted by the South Korean team faced multiple rejections before being accepted for publication. Other paleontologists, such as Michael Benton from the University of Bristol, express skepticism about the findings. He suggests that half-formed wings could have been adapted for gliding, as seen in modern gliding lizards and mammals.

Despite the debate among scientists, Robopteryx opens up new possibilities for understanding the evolutionary history of birds and their ancestors. By continuing to study the behaviors of these prehistoric creatures, researchers aim to unravel the mysteries surrounding the origins of bird plumage and flight.