March 1, 2017

Laser scanning could reveal when dinosaurs started flying

Scientists have revealed details of a chicken-like dinosaur that existed around the same time birds first appeared on Earth.

Chinese and American researchers believe the Jurassic creature named Anchiornis, a feathered dinosaur from about 160 million years ago, could hold important information on the missing link between land-bound and flying creatures.

Fossilized Anchiornis bones were studied using lasers, and traces of soft tissue were observed.

"We shone violet lasers at Anchiornis specimens in a dark room to cause them to glow in the dark, revealing amazing details," said Michael Pittman of the University of Hong Kong, who co-authored the study in Nature Communications. "This revealed the first quantitative high-detail outline of a feathered dinosaur."

The process involved a new technique called laser-stimulated fluorescence (LSF).

A flap at the front of the dinosaur's elbow was revealed by the lasers, a feature which in present day birds is called the propatagium, a feathered, boneless leading edge of a wing. It is important for flight.

"The fact that we find this really neat wing in an older bird-like animal is really exciting," said Pittman.

Equally interesting is the fact that Anchiornis appeared to have four wings rather than two.

What did it look like?

It's not clear whether Anchiornis was able to fly, however, it is likely to at least have been able to generate lift and possibly to glide.

“The wings of Anchiornis are reminiscent of the wings of some living gliding and soaring birds, but detailed investigation, specifically quantitative biomechanical modelling that can constrain how this animal could have moved, is required to robustly test whether Anchiornis could have glided, soared or even moved through the air at all,” Pitman noted.

The recent discovery and further investigation could assist understanding of how animals on Earth began to fly, and indeed of the origins of birds.

Anchiornis had "drumstick-shaped legs, a slender tail and an arm that looks just like a modern bird wing," Pittman explained, adding: "We even have foot scales preserved in the Anchiornis specimens that are just like chickens today."

A study in 2010 of Anchiornis' feathers showed that it had a grey body, facial speckles and a reddish-brown Mohawk crest. It was around the same size as today's chickens.


Image credit: Julius T. Csotonyi