Chinese scientists first thought it was a prehistoric bird, until chipping away at the fossil revealed surprising features.
Imagine an animal that looks like a dinosaur, and you probably will not imagine a bat. But that may change. A team of paleontologists in China announced on Wednesday the discovery of a dinosaur that sported the same kinds of fleshy wings bats use to flit through the air.
The dinosaur, Ambopteryx longibrachium, lived about 163 million years ago. When Min Wang, a vertebrate paleontologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, first saw the fossil, which he and his team pulled out of Jurassic-age rocks in Liaoning Province in China, “I thought it was a bird,” he said.
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Birds evolved from dinosaurs, and so the two groups share many features. Dr. Wang assumed Ambopteryx was a bird because the animal sported relatively long forelimbs, just as modern birds do. But as his team carefully chipped away the rock surrounding the fossil over the course of about a year, distinctly dinosaurian features began to emerge. Ambopteryx, for one thing, had long fingers, a trait that birds lack.
Dr. Wang’s team was also surprised to find the remains of soft tissue around the dinosaur’s arms and torso. This tissue, in life, formed flaps of skin that probably resembled batlike wings, Dr. Wang said.
The new find, published in the journal Nature, follows a report in Nature in 2015 — by a team including authors of the new paper — that described the only other known batlike dinosaur. That animal, called Yi qi, was the first of its kind, and other paleontologists were skeptical.
The doubts arose because Yi qi was so bizarre.
“I think that if you had asked a paleontologist to just draw up some kind of fantasy dinosaur, you know, a lot of us never would have come up with something that was that weird,” said Stephen Brusatte, a vertebrate paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh, who was not involved in the new research. But the discovery of Ambopteryx, which is a close cousin of Yi qi, “pretty much seals the deal that there was this group of dinosaurs with batlike wings,” he said.
So batlike dinosaurs definitely existed. But exactly how Ambopteryx flew through the air remains unclear.
The team’s best guess is that the animal’s flying style was “halfway between a flying squirrel and a bat,” said Jingmai O’Connor, a co-author and a vertebrate paleontologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Despite this lingering mystery, Dr. Brusatte said, the discovery of Ambopteryx underscores that on the dinosaur family tree, there were several branches — not just the one that led to birds — that gave rise to flying dinosaurs. And, he added, it is unsurprising that dinosaurs may have evolved to fill the kinds of ecological roles filled today by mammals such as flying squirrels.
Perhaps paleontologists should not be too shocked by the next oddity they dig up.
“Maybe a dinosaur with seven arms, or a tyrannosaur with a big horn sticking out of its head, or, I don’t know, a brachiosaurus with webbed feet,” he said. “I have no idea! Who knows what we might find. But that makes the field very, very exciting.”
Earlier reporting on dinosaurs and flight