Certain dinosaurs, and ultimately modern birds, likely developed the ability to fly because bigger, flashier feathers are simply sexier.
That conclusion is strongly supported by newly published research led by Scott Persons, the curator of the Mace Brown Museum of Natural History at the College of Charleston.
For years, paleontologists have known many dinosaurs had hair-like feathers that served as insulation, but those feathers had nothing to do with flight.
What wasn't clear is how in the process of evolution feathers progressed to become more complex, and eventually to allow for flight.
Persons' and fellow researchers now say evidence shows it was the drive to find a mate that spurred the adaptation, saying that flashy plumage in dinosaurs and early birds eventually led to flight-capable feathers and the development of wings.
"To evolve into complex flight feathers, traditional natural selection needed a boost from sexual selection," Persons says. "Effectively, sexual section led to an increased complexity, which bridged the gap from one function to another."
Research shows larger, stiffer, flatter feathers very gradually evolved to become showy fans on the arms and tails of dinosaurs, which they waived and wagged in the air as part of courtship displays, according to the study.
Persons' says there's supporting evidence for the theory readily apparent in modern birds, which still rely on colorful, showy feathers to attract mates.
“Sexual display remains an important function of complex feathers in some birds,” Persons explains. “Think of the feather fans of turkeys and peacocks or the head crest of a cockatoo.”
The research, published in the scientific journal Evolution, has powerful implications on the scientific community, according to Persons.
"Recognizing that critical contribution teaches us something fundamental and important about the evolutionary process," Persons says. "The implications go way beyond the single example of dinosaurs and feather evolution.”