Trial and Error

A previously unknown species of bird-like dinosaur with pterosaur-like wings has been discovered by a team of paleontologists working with the Chinese Academy of Science. The discovery, reported in the May 9 issue of the journal Nature, sheds some new light on the origins of avian flight. A nearly complete skeleton of Ambopteryx longibrachium was unearthed near Wubaiding Village in China’s Liaoning Province.

Named Ambopteryx longibrachium, the new dinosaur lived approximately 163 million years ago (Jurassic period) in modern day China. The prehistoric creature had a body length of about 12.6 inches (32 cm) and an estimated body mass of 300 g. It belongs to Scansoriopterygidae, an extinct family of climbing and gliding non-avian theropod dinosaurs.

Unlike other flying dinosaurs, namely birds, this species has membranous wings supported by a rod-like wrist bone that is not found in any other dinosaur, but is present in pterosaurs and flying squirrels. These wing structures represent a short-lived and unsuccessful attempt to fly, according to scientists.

Ambopteryx longibrachium. Image credit: Chung-Tat Cheung & Min Wang / Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, Chinese Academy of Sciences.

In contrast, feathered wings, first documented in Late Jurassic non-avian dinosaurs, were further refined through the evolution of numerous skeletal and soft tissue modifications, giving rise to at least two additional independent origins of dinosaur flight and ultimately leading to the current success of modern birds.

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