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150-year-old dinosaur could probably fly, new research suggests

The Munich model of the transitional bird Archaeopteryx. It preserves a partial skull (top left), the shoulder girdle and both wings slightly lifted (left-most middle left), the chest (in the middle), and the pelvic girdle and both legs in a ‘bicycling’ attitude (on the right); all linked by the spine of the neck (above, left, underneath the skull) to the tip of the tail (most right). The inscription of the wing feathers are visible radiating from under the shoulder, and faded print of the tail feathers can be included extension of the tip of the tail. (Credit: ESRF/Pascal Goetgheluck)

It was established as a scientific fact that birds evolved from a group of dinosaurs known as maniraptoran theropods, a group that included Velociraptors and other small carnivorous dinosaurs. Now new research suggests that the 150 million year old Archaeopteryx, a link between dinosaurs and modern birds was able to fly, but drastically different than a cardinal or blue jay you’ve ever seen.

New research, published Tuesday in the scientific journal Nature Communications, highlights new findings that the dinosaur probably flew in quick, short bursts over small distances, in contrast to the modern birds.

“Our analyses show that the architecture of Archaeopteryx wing bones consistently exhibits a combination of cross-sectional geometric properties uniquely shared with volant birds, in particular, that will occasionally [use] at a short distance flapping,” the study abstract reads. “We therefore interpret that Archaeopteryx is in active service wing flapping to take to the air by means of a more anterodorsally posteroventrally oriented flight stroke used by the modern birds.”

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The authors of the study concluded that “avian powered flight must have occurred before the last of the Jura.”

“We noticed immediately that the bone walls of Archaeopteryx were much thinner than those of the terrestrial dinosaurs, but seemed very much on the conventional bird bones,” said lead author Dennis Feet, in a statement. “Data analysis also demonstrated that the bones of Archaeopteryx plot closest to that of birds such as pheasants that occasional use of active flight to cross barriers or evading predators, but not to that of gliding and soaring forms, such as many birds of prey and some sea birds that are optimized for sustainable flight.”

Dr. Emmanuel de Margerie, who also worked on the study, said the team “focused on the middle part of the arm bones, because we knew that these sections contain clear flight-related signals in birds.”

The study, which was received in July 2017 and accepted on Jan. 31, 2018, is written by Feet, Jorge Cubo, Emmanuel de Margerie, Martin Röper, Vincent Beyrand, Stanislav Bureš, Paul Tafforeau and Sophie Sanchez.

The researchers used a non-invasive technique called phase-contrast synchroron microtomography to examine the fossilized bones and get a better idea of what the Archaeopteryx could do in the air.

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Twelve fossils of Archaeopteryx have been found, it is first discovered in the late 19th century by the famous German palaeontologist Hermann von Meyer. The most recent was discovered by an amateur collector in 2010, announced in February 2014 and described scientifically this year.

Archaeopteryx possessed feathers, like a modern bird. However, there was also still a “long, stiff, frond-feathered tail and teeth, together with the bones in her hands, shoulders and pelvis that were not in each other.

Other dinosaurs are also on the flight, such as the Pteranodon and Pterodactyls, but the Archaeopteryx is a link between dinosaurs and birds, in fact, a broker, resulting in the flight patterns added interest.

Feet, notes that, because Archaeopteryx differs from modern birds, more research is needed to figure out exactly how it uses its wings.

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“However, because Archaeopteryx lacked the chest adjustments to fly like modern birds, the way in which the achieved powered flight must also have been different,” said Feet. “We have to go back to the fossils to answer the question on how exactly this Bavarian icon of evolution used its wings.”

Follow Chris Ciaccia on Twitter @Chris_Ciaccia

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