With growing evidence for the presence of feathers in theropod dinosaurs, scientists have become increasingly interested in what adaptive function the earliest feathers served. The three predominant hypotheses are 1) flight, 2) thermoregulation, and 3) visual display. While the first two hypotheses have each received considerable attention and analysis, the third has often been mentioned yet has been inadequately described and analyzed. We define the visual display hypothesis as predicting that theropod feathers served primarily in the creation of a visual cue capable of triggering a behavioral response in an individual perceiving this cue. We analyze fossil evidence regarding whether such a cue could have been generated and perceived, discuss plausible scenarios in which this type of visual cue could have developed, and highlight areas where more data are needed to further support or falsify this hypothesis. We hope that by developing and articulating hypotheses such as this, it will provide other researchers a framework in which to place future discoveries in order to better understand the presence of early feathers on theropod dinosaurs.
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