Birds evolved from dinosaurs, and in the midst of that evolution, there were a flurry of links between the two. Now scientists have found another: a curious dinosaur that featured the type of wings associated today with bats. They call it Ambopteryx longibrachium, which means “pteryx-like with elongated forelimb.”
Ambopteryx was discovered in a 163 million-year-old rock formation in China’s northeastern Liaoning province by a farmer in 2017. Liaoning, near the North Korea border, is a crucial location for understanding the link between dinosaurs and birds, as it was also where the first known feathered dinosaurs, Sinosauropteryx prima, were ever found. When Min Wang, a vertebrate paleontologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, first saw the fossil, “I thought it was a bird,” he tells the New York Times.
The fossil was remarkably well-preserved. Not only were the bones in excellent condition, but so were the rock and soft tissue, which included wing membranes, bristly body feathers, gizzard stones, and even the contents of its last meal in its stomach.
Ambopteryx, which was around the size of a blue jay, might have existed at the same time as S. prima, living during the Middle–Late Jurassic and Early Cretaceous periods (S. prima lived during the Early Cretaceous). It was able to fly thanks to membranous wings made of skin, attached to a skinny, pointy wrist bone. That wrist bone, very different from a bird's wing, is a tip-off for scientists that Ambopteryx is a dinosaur.
Membranous wings, which have veins that provide strength and reinforcement during flight, were thought to be an extremely rare quality among dinosaurs. Ambopteryx is just the second dinosaur ever discovered with them. The first? Yi qi, found a mere 50 miles from Ambopteryx. Wang believes they may soon have more company.
“For a long time, we thought feathered wings were the only flight apparatus” in the evolution of birds, Wang tells Reuters.
“However,” he continues, “these new discoveries clearly exhibit that membranous wings also evolved in some dinosaurs closely related to birds. Put together, the breadth and richness of the experimentation pertaining to flight is greater than was previously thought during the dinosaur-bird transition. And we may be seeing just the tip of the iceberg.”
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