Tiny, bat-winged dinosaur sheds light on the origin of flight © Chung-Tat Cheung

Tiny, bat-winged dinosaur sheds light on the origin of flight

Ambopteryx longibrachium's bat-like wings may not have been capable of true flight, but they do show how creative evolution can be.

The discovery of a new bat-like dinosaur shows that these ancient beasts were constant innovators when it came to the evolution of flight.

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The 30cm-long Jurassic dinosaur, named Ambopteryx longibrachium, lived 163 million years ago in northeastern China and sported membrane wings – similar to those we see in pterosaurs and modern bats.

The most widespread flying animals during this time were the pterosaurs – the first vertebrates to evolve true flight. These weren’t actually dinosaurs, however, but a separate group of reptiles.

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Some dinosaurs did take to the skies, though, and it’s from these airborne creatures that modern birds eventually evolved.

The newly discovered Ambopteryx belongs to a family of small, possibly tree-dwelling dinosaurs called the scansoriopterygids. It follows the discovery in 2015 of a similar scansoriopterygid called Yi qi. The Ambopteryx fossil is more complete, and proves that Yi qi wasn’t an anomaly.

“These fossils demonstrate that, close to the origin of flight, dinosaurs closely related to birds were experimenting with a diversity of wing structures,” write the researchers, led by Dr Min Wang at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Analysis of the Ambopteryx fossil revealed important differences from the skeletons of more bird-like dinosaurs. Of particular significance is a rod-like wrist bone that extends from the dinosaur’s forelimb, and which would have supported membrane wings. It’s not known whether these wings allowed true flight, or whether the dinosaurs glided through the air like flying squirrels.

The authors say that these wings were probably a “short-lived experimentation” with flight. It’s an example of convergent evolution, where animals independently evolve similar solutions to the same problem (in this case, flight). It was the feather-winged, bird-like dinosaurs who proved more successful, paving the way for the emergence of modern birds.

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