Bizarre bat–winged dinosaur once soared over China
Chinese scientists say they have discovered a new dinosaur species, with bat-like wings, that sheds light on how dinosaurs may have evolved into birds.
Chinese dinoboffins have announced the discovery of one of the oddest creatures that may have ever attempted flight. The critter lived during the Jurassic Period, about 160 million years ago, 10 million years before the appearance of the first bird.
Based on a fossil specimen discovered in China’s Hebei province a decade ago, scientists estimate the bird-like dinosaur existed for a very short time 160 million years ago during the Jurassic Period, according to a new paper published in scientific journal Nature on Wednesday.
The flying creature weighed about 230 grams and was 63 centimeters in length.
Xu Xing, a paleontologist with China’s Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, and lead author of the report
The pigeon-sized reptile, named Yi qi (“E-chee”) or Strange Wing in Mandarin, is reckoned to be a cousin of modern birds. Its bat-like wings are made of membranous skin, rather than feathers, just like the wings of the extinct flying reptiles known as pterosaurs, of which it is a contemporary but not a relative.
A small, feathered dinosaur that probably sported bat-like wing membranes might have been able to glide or fly short distances. The fossilized remains of the creature, unearthed in eastern China and described today in Nature1, have a 13-centimetre-long, rod-like bone that extends from each wrist, which might have helped to support or position wing membranes; small patches of membranous tissue also cling around the bones. It is the first time such a bone structure has been seen in dinosaurs.
Bone to pick
Xu says that it is not clear whether the rod-like bone extending from Yi qi’s wrist remained in one position or could somehow be moved to control the membrane. And on the basis of the one specimen his team has unearthed, he notes that it is difficult to tell whether the creature glided, flapped its wings or alternated between the two, as do some modern-day bats and many birds, including swifts, woodpeckers and finches.
If Yi qi did take to the air, it may have spent most of its time gliding, not flapping its wings, the team suggests. The bone in the wing membrane might have rendered flapping unwieldy, and features on the forelimb bones suggest that the dinosaur’s flight muscles may have been relatively small and weak. (The creature’s feathers would not have helped it to fly: they are more like stiff, frayed bristles than the aerodynamic structures that today’s birds have).
Unlike other bird-like dinosaurs, its wings were made from membranes — like a bat — rather than composed of feathers.
It didn’t become the birds we see today — it tried but failed.
“It’s a failed experiment, it’s an evolutionary dead end,” Xu said.
“Over the last 30 years, there were so many discoveries made that demonstrate birds are really descendants of dinosaurs,” he said.
“It’s a great example showing how dinosaurs evolved into birds.”
Even though the dinosaur had wings, Xu said it’s unclear whether it could flap them and most likely moved through the air mostly by gliding.
He told the media that the fossil is now held in a museum in Shandong Province, and the next step would be trying to find more fossils of the same species to be able to better understand, for example, its flight capability.
Thanks to a robust economy, China has become a major center for dinosaur discovery and research.
“We have more funding for paleontological expeditions,” he said. “So now there are more expeditions in this country than 30 years ago, which means you can find more fossils.
Widespread construction work also helps to expose more rocks and fossils, he added.