When dinosaurs flew

Feb 05, 2014 by Robert Perkins
When dinosaurs flew
Luis Chiappe is lead investigator of the research team on the ancient bird study; curator and director of the Dinosaur Institute at the Natural History Museum; and adjunct professor at USC Dornsife. Credit: Natural History Museum.

(Phys.org) —A team of paleontologists affiliated with USC Dornsife and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County has determined that birds were capable of modern flight patterns much earlier than previously suspected—at least 60 million years before T. rex stalked the land.

The new findings have added a layer of understanding to the evolution of birds from dinosaurs, as researchers explore how took flight.

A study published online by PeerJ on Jan. 2 detailed the examination of a startlingly complete and pristine specimen of an ancient, dinosaur-era bird: Hongshanornis longicresta, which flapped throughout what is now China roughly 125 million years ago during the early Cretaceous Period.

This particular specimen, discovered a few years ago in rocks from northeastern China, is the latest example of the unexpected diversity of primitive birds that have been unearthed from that part of the world.

"Exceptionally well-preserved specimens like this one give us a wealth of information about the early evolution of birds," said Luis Chiappe, lead investigator of the research team; curator and director of the Dinosaur Institute at the Natural History Museum; and adjunct professor at USC Dornsife. "These unique fossils hold the clues for understanding how living birds became the fascinating animals they are."

Roughly 90 percent of the skeleton is complete, with wings and tail so finely preserved that the outlines of feathers and what may be dark color bands on the tail can still be seen. That high level of preservation—particularly around the wings and tail—has allowed the team to perform an aerodynamic analysis of the bird, revealing how it likely flew.

When dinosaurs flew
The most recently discovered fossil of Hongshanornis longcresta is so complete that details of the feathers can be clearly seen and studied, providing scientists additional clues about how the bird flew. Credit: Luis Chiappe.

Michael Habib, assistant professor of research at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, analyzed the shape of the wings and tail and determined that the bird "flitted about," bouncing through the air with bursts of flapping.

The flying style is far closer to that found in than what was supposed of ancient flyers—which have been thought to rely more on gliding due to a lack of enough muscle mass in flying appendages to achieve flapping bursts.

"This isn't a mode of flight we expected from Cretaceous birds," Habib said, adding that its small size and overall shape are comparable to that of modern birds. "It was pretty much a Cretaceous starling with a larger tail like a mockingbird."

Transported to the modern world, it wouldn't look like anything special to the casual observer, until a closer examination revealed claws at the end of the bird's wings and tiny teeth in its beak.

Reconstruction of flying styles among ancient is a relatively new pursuit by scientists, with a better understanding of aerodynamics coupled with better-preserved fossils allowing them to explore new questions about long-extinct species.

Explore further: Tell-tale toes point to oldest-known fossil bird tracks from Australia

Related Stories

Early birds had an old-school version of wings

Nov 21, 2012

In comparison to modern birds, the prehistoric Archaeopteryx and bird-like dinosaurs before them had a more primitive version of a wing. The findings, reported on November 21 in Current Biology, lend support ...

First fossil bird with teeth specialized for tough diet

Jan 07, 2013

Beak shape variation in Darwin's finches is a classic example of evolutionary adaptation, with beaks that vary widely in proportions and shape, reflecting a diversity of ecologies. While living birds have ...

Sex of early birds suggests dinosaur reproductive style

Jan 22, 2013

In a paper published in Nature Communications on January 22, 2013, a team of paleontologists including Dr. Luis Chiappe, Director of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County's (NHM) Dinosaur Institute, has discov ...

Recommended for you

New evidence on Neanderthal mixing

1 hour ago

New research on a 45,000-year-old Siberian thighbone has narrowed the window of time when humans and Neanderthals interbred to between 50,000 and 60,000 years ago, and has shown that modern humans reached ...

US state reaches deal to keep dinosaur mummy

Oct 21, 2014

North Dakota reached a $3 million deal to keep a rare fossil of a duckbilled dinosaur on display at the state's heritage center, where it will serve as a cornerstone for the facility's $51 million expansion, officials said ...

User comments : 0