The evolutionary development of bird feathers — and how it affects my fantasy writingPosted: October 6, 2014
Bird feathers are pretty amazing. They’re the most complex skin outgrowths found on any Earth animal, specialized for everything from basic locomotion to unique courtship displays. But as I’ve been reading in National Geographic and other online articles, the path to modern bird feathers was a long one.
Since Jurassic Park showed us bare-skinned dinosaurs in the 90’s, science has found feathered dinosaur fossils from as early as 124 million years ago. Feathers probably developed from reptile scales, which gradually frayed and enlongated. These early feathers could have been for waterproofing or insulating the body. But even in their early stages, feathers might have been used for courtship. A theropod would have to be in good health to spare metabolic energy on these extraneous growths, so attractive display feathers would have indicated a potential mate.
Over time, those straggly beginnings became a mechanism for gliding. And over even more time, birds’ bones and muscles adapted to allow flapping flight. Some feathered dinosaur fossils have quill-like feathers on all four limbs, suggesting that some species experimented with a four-winged approach. We take sparrows and pigeons for granted when they flap around our cities, but these thriving creatures are the product of millions of years of biological trial and error.
The key to evolution theory is that it’s not a planned march toward perfection. It’s just what happens when life throws a bunch of stuff at the wall and, over thousands of years, figures out what sticks. It’s kind of amazing how many animals have adapted to flinging themselves into the air on flat membranes: giant pterosaurs, insects, squirrels, bats and rainforest frogs. Birds just took a less intuitive, more difficult route. For their trouble, they ended up with a flight method well suited to specialization. Diving falcons, hovering hummingbirds, and albatrosses that can glide for hours are only some of the options. If real live Earth can produce such natural variety — under strict rules of physical efficiency — then I think our sci-fi/fantasy worlds should be even more richly built.
Fond of science fantasy as I am, I think feathers are a great tool for character design and worldbuilding. Korvi, the dragonfolk of the Stories of Aligare, have feathered wings as well as decorative feather manes. (Also, Tijo the mage might have been a deus ex machina in Remedy if I hadn’t inflicted moulting feathers on him. I clipped the character’s wings in an overly literal way!) And in the upcoming Tinder Stricken, phoenixes will use their feathers for flight, communication and more. The real mechanics of a bird’s physiology can make a good grounding element for a story full of magic and lore.
Thinking like this makes me want to see the fossil records of magical creatures. It might be tricky to balance scientific discovery with the faith-driven nature of magic — but wouldn’t it be cool to see the Archaeopteryx-like ancestors of glorious phoenixes? Or how harpies’ bodies changed over millenia? Hey, there’s something I’ve never seen done in a fantasy-type time travel plot: serious archaeology! I’ll add it to my To Write list.