In northeastern China, a stunning pair of discoveries are brewing. Ambopteryx is actually the second bat-winged dinosaur to be found in the area, likely with a membrane allowing it to glide from tree to tree. The discovery is significant because of the special link that Yi qi (strange wing) represents between two different modes of dinosaur transportation:
It was a stunning discovery, which broke a neat divide between two styles of prehistoric flight. The dinosaurs took to the skies by transforming insulating fuzz into elegant, flattened feathers, and eventually giving rise to birds …
It was a dinosaur that independently evolved the leathery wings of pterosaurs, and covered their leading edges with fuzzy proto-feathers.
Through these extraordinary fossils, we can better understand the relationships and transitions between prehistoric birds and the ones we see today.
Another marvel of Ambopteryx is that the fossil was discovered almost entirely intact. Even when paleontologists find fossils, they are unlikely to find them so well-preserved. One wrinkle in the plan is that the fossil’s arms are folded, making it difficult to visualize their shape and function when fully extended.
Evolutionary theory and the bat-winged dinosaur
To oversimplify, the theory of evolution can be boiled down to this: “Any change in the heritable traits within a population across generations.”
Unfortunately, Ambopteryx’s wing style likely left no descendants, being unsuitable to its environment for one reason or another. The style of the bat-winged dinosaur was probably a prototype for future generations. However, according to Michael Habib of the University of Southern California, they did make one important contribution:
For whatever reason, pterosaurs fared well with leathery wings (and bats still do), but dinosaurs did not. For them, the crucial innovation was the feathered wing, a feature that today’s dinosaurs—the birds—still rely on.
For now, Ambopteryx represents a fascinating link in evolutionary history, and a key to understanding prehistoric flight.
Feature image provided via Chung-Tat Cheung / Min Wang / Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology / Chinese Academy of Sciences