The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This tiny dinosaur may have had wings like a bat

Artist’s impression of the new dinosaur Yi qi. (Dinostar Co. Ltd)

The dinosaurs alive today are the ones that shrank quickly into modern birds. But a newly discovered dinosaur may have developed wings as well -- ones like a bat's -- at least 160 million years ago.

The creature dubbed Yi qi ("strange wing") by its discoverers, Mandarin for "strange wing," is described for the first time in a paper published Wednesday in Nature. Because the new species is based on just one specimen (and one that doesn't include the lower body, at that) the researchers can't be sure it actually flew, or even that the unusual features they've detected were part of a wing. But one thing is for sure: It's a weird one.

Yi qi -- which has the shortest name ever given to a dinosaur -- comes by its weirdness honestly. The dinosaur is one of just three members of a family called Scansoriopterygidae, which are some of the smallest known dinosaurs. Yi qi is estimated to have weighed a couple ounces short of a pound, with a skull just 4 centimeters long.

Scansoriopterygids are thought to be close relatives of the dinosaurs that would go on to be living birds, though the details of that relation remain unclear because of the small number of known specimens. They seem to have had feathers, but they were the simple kind used for warmth or ornamentation as opposed to flight. They're unique for their long third fingers (most theropods have longer second fingers), which were probably adapted for tree climbing.

[New study suggests that any kind of dinosaur could have feathers, not just birds]

But in addition to the classic long finger, Yi qi also has a long, rod-like bone extending from each wrist. The researchers say they initially joked that the dinosaur had used them as chopsticks or ski poles.

“At first we just didn’t know what the rod-like bones were,” study author Corwin Sullivan, a Canadian palaeontologist based at The Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology of China, said in a statement. “Then I was digging into the scientific literature on flying and gliding vertebrates for a totally different project, and I came across a paragraph in a textbook that said flying squirrels have a strut of cartilage attached to either the wrist or elbow to help support the flight membrane. I immediately thought, wait a minute – that sounds familiar!”

[50 years after finding its giant arms, scientists have put this strange dinosaur’s pieces together]

The researchers also claim to have found the remains of a membrane on the specimen, suggesting that these rods could have been the underlying structure of a bat-like wing. Still, the rod-like structures are so weird that it's hard to directly compare them to anything we see today. And even if Yi qi did in fact evolve these primitive wings, there's no evidence that the dinosaur actually used them to fly, or even to glide. We just don't have enough of the dinosaur's skeleton to recreate the mechanics involved.

[A newly declared species may be the largest flying bird to ever live]

In his commentary on the research for Nature Magazine, University of California Berkeley paleontologist Kevin Padian (who wasn't involved in the study) pointed out that the study is tremendous for another reason entirely.

"Despite this aeronautic uncertainty, the paper is a milestone for another reason," Padian writes. "The Yi qi fossil was found by a farmer, which is the case for many Chinese fossils. But [the researchers] provide more complete information about the geographical and geological provenance of their specimen than has accompanied other recent Chinese fossils collected by nonscientists...Moreover, they examined the specimen meticulously to be sure that none of its elements had been faked or restored. This is a key advance and sets the standard for future publications of specimens procured from third parties. The authors are due thanks for this diligence from the entire palaeontological community."

And in some ways, a pair of relatively useless wings -- for flight, at least -- would be even more fascinating. It's possible that lots of dinosaurs experimented with wing-like structures -- maybe using them for gliding, climbing, or even just intimidating ornamentation -- the same way it seems they experimented with early feathers. That makes it even stranger that only modern birds got them right for flight.

Yi qi lived in the Jurassic, so it was a pioneer in the evolution of flight on the line to birds,” study author Zheng Xiaoting of Linyi University said in a statement. “It reminds us that the early history of flight was full of innovations, not all of which survived.”

Want more dinosaurs? Give these a click:

First ever evidence of a swimming, shark-eating dinosaur

Which dinosaurs survived? The ones that shrank the fastest.

Newly discovered dinosaur, Dreadnoughtus, takes title of largest terrestrial animal

We finally know when birds lost their teeth