The bird which flew above dinosaurs heads

The analysis of the exceptional 125 millions years-old remains of a wing from Spain have, recently, changed the evolutionary history of birds. The extraordinary preservation of the fossil has allowed the researchers to access to important information about the structure, internal organs, and other soft-tissues of early birds.

Before this discovery, it was thought that the Jurassic and Early Cretaceous birds had a primitive flight. The first known bird is Archaeopteryx lived 150 million years ago. Because it displays features in common to both birds and non-avian dinosaurs, Archaeopteryx has been considered a link between them. However, because of the structures of the wings, Archaeopteryx was unable to flight as modern birds.

In modern birds, a complex mechanism composed by an intricate network of tendons, ligaments, and muscles allows different movements, that are crucial as they are responsible for the lift and manoeuvrability during the flight.

The remains consist of a distal forelimb which belongs to the Enantiornithes, a group of birds characteristic of the Lower Cretaceous deposits from Las Hoyas fossil site. The novelty of this scientific study is that the fossil exhibits the organization of the wing and the connective structures associated with the insertion of the flight feathers; hence the fossil documents, for the first time, that certain primitive birds were capable of flying like many modern birds.

“The anatomical match between the fibres preserved in the fossil and those that characterize the wings of living birds, strongly indicates that some of the earliest birds were capable of aerodynamic prowess like many present day birds” said the researcher Dr Chiappe; therefore, this little well-preserved fossil provides evidences that, during the Early Cretaceous Enantiornithes possesed morphologically well-developed forelimbs that allowed them to fly over the heads of dinosaurs.

Sources: Guillermo Navalón, Jesús Marugán-Lobón, Luis M. Chiappe, José Luis Sanz, Ángela D. Buscalioni. Soft-tissue and dermal arrangement in the wing of an Early Cretaceous bird: Implications for the evolution of avian flight. Scientific Reports, 2015; 5: 14864 DOI: 10.1038/srep14864.Photo : Stephanie Abramowicz, scientific illustrator at the Natural History Museum, Los Angeles County.

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Marta Lanseros

Freelance science writer, with a MsC in evolutionary biology and anthropology. I have worked in evolutionary biology at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory and at the University of Heidelberg.

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