The fossilized remains of a creature unearthed in Eastern China and featured today in Nature could be of small, feathered dinosaur which had bat-like wing membranes and could glide or fly short distances. The just discovered tiny creature has forelimb bones which are believed to support aerofoil membranes.
The creature has a 13 centimeter long rod like bone which projects from each wrist and it could have helped to support or position wing membranes. Also seen were small patches of membranous tissue which clung around the bones. Such a bone structure was never seen in any dinosaur before.
Xing Xu, a paleontologist at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing and lead author of the paper stated that it is difficult establish how much area the dinosaur’s wing membranes covered.
The just discovered species has been named Yi qi, which in Mandarin means “strange wing”. Xu and his colleagues predict that the creature could be about 380 grams with wings having a span of 60 centimeters. It lived about 160 million years ago.
Thomas Holtz Jr, a vertebrate paleontologist at the University of Maryland in College Park said, “This is one of the strangest animals that I’ve seen in the fossil record in years. It’s raising a lot more puzzles than its solving.”
Much of the above story is speculative and Xu said that based on present findings from one specimen his team has unearthed, it is difficult to conclude if the creature glided or flapped its wings of used both the techniques alternatively to fly like present day bats. It is not clear if the rod-like bone extending from Yi qi’s wrist remained in one position or could somehow be moved to control the membrane.
If the creature indeed took to air, it must have spent a major portion of its flying not flapping its wings but instead gliding suggested the team. The bone in the wing membrane seems to be suggesting that the dinosaur’s flight muscles may have been relatively small and weak and therefore flapping of the wings are out of question.
If indeed the wing membranes were used as an appendage to aid flight in the dinosaurs, the flying abilities of the dinosaurs would have developed independently from those of pterosaurs which are a group of ancient flying reptiles says Holtz.
Holtz however offers a completely different view pertaining to the wing membranes. It could be a display device used to attract the opposite sex during courtship.
Holtz feels, “The temptation to associate these membranes with flight may be misleading.”
Evolution has played tricks before and had many paleontologists first suggesting that feathers evolved so that dinosaurs could enhance retaining body heat or communicate with potential mates only later to retract and say that feathers were for flight.