A landmark discovery of a 163-million-year-old bat-winged dinosaur in northeastern China is reshaping scientists' understanding of the evolution of flight in dinosaurs.
While there's plenty to study about the tiny, feathered species that's now known as Ambopteryx longibrachium, its most distinctive features are undoubtedly the membranous wings oddly reminiscent of bat wings.
With this find from the Jurassic period, scientists glean more information about the evolution of wings among dinosaurs, suggesting that different species took a number of different paths in developing mechanisms for flight.
"The most exciting thing, for me, is that it shows that some dinosaurs evolved very different structures to become volant," Min Wang, lead author and paleontologist at China's Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology explained.
Meet The Ambopteryx Longibrachium
The team unveiled the new dinosaur in a new study published in the journal Nature, describing it as a feathered dinosaur that's roughly the size of a sparrow weighing just a few hundred grams.
When the fossil was discovered by a farmer from China's Liaoning province, scientists initially thought it was a bird. However, the research team believes that the Ambopteryx behaved more like squirrels and sugar gliders than birds.
"It probably would have been climbing around in the trees — like a little, creepy-looking dinosaur squirrel — and then flying from branch to branch," described Jingmai O'Connor, study coauthor and an IVPP paleontologist who specializes in ancient birds.
The fossil of this bat-winged dinosaur is so well-preserved that scientists were able to determine that the tiny dino enjoyed snacking on both plants and animals.
Bat-Like Wings Ideal For Gliding
Of course, scientists are most eager to study the membranous wings of the Ambopteryx.
It's only the second known dinosaur with this type of wing. The first, dubbed as Yi qi or "strange wing," was also discovered by a farmer in northeastern China in 2015. Just like Yi qi, the newly discovered Ambopteryx is part of a strange group of non-avian dinosaurs known as scansoriopterygid.
Scansoriopterygids are two-legged creatures that were among the smallest known dinosaurs. Including the newly discovered Ambopteryx, there have only been four species discovered to have belonged to this group. All of them are found with a very long third finger.
This particular finger is important in the Ambopteryx's flight mechanism. In the study, the authors suggested that the feathered dinosaur used these rod-like bones known as a styliform to support a large wing membrane that allowed them to glide from tree to tree.
It's not a type of wing that likely let these animals fly for very far or very long, The Atlantic notes. Bats and pterosaurs have muscles in their arms to help them control and adjust to the currents in the air. More likely, the Ambopteryx and Yi are gliders.
"These fossils demonstrate that, close to the origin of flight, dinosaurs closely related to birds were experimenting with a diversity of wing structures," the authors wrote in the study.