The Munich specimen of the transitional bird Archaeopteryx. It preserves a partial skull (top left), shoulder girdle and both wings slightly raised up (most left to center left), the ribcage (center), and the pelvic girdle and both legs in a 'cycling' posture (right); all connected by the vertebral column from the neck (top left, under the skull) to the tip of the tail (most right). Imprints of its wing feathers are visible radiating from below the shoulder and vague imprints of the tail plumage can be recognized extending from the tip of the tail. (Credit: ESRF/Pascal Goetgheluck)
It has been established as scientific fact that birds evolved from a group of dinosaurs known as maniraptoran theropods, a group that included Velociraptors and other small carnivorous dinosaurs. Now, new research suggests that the 150-million-year old Archaeopteryx, a link between dinosaurs and modern-day birds was able to fly, but drastically different than any cardinal or blue jay you've ever seen.
New research, published Tuesday in scientific journal Nature Communications, highlights new findings that the dinosaur likely flew in rapid, short bursts over small distances, unlike modern-day birds.
"Our analyses reveal that the architecture of Archaeopteryx’s wing bones consistently exhibits a combination of cross-sectional geometric properties uniquely shared with volant birds, particularly those occasionally [utilizing] short-distance flapping," the study's abstract reads. "We therefore interpret that Archaeopteryx actively employed wing flapping to take to the air through a more anterodorsally posteroventrally oriented flight stroke than used by modern birds."
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The study's authors also concluded that "avian powered flight must have originated before the latest Jurassic."
“We immediately noticed that the bone walls of Archaeopteryx were much thinner than those of earthbound dinosaurs but looked a lot like conventional bird bones,” said lead author Dennis Voeten in a statement. “Data analysis furthermore demonstrated that the bones of Archaeopteryx plot closest to those of birds like pheasants that occasionally use active flight to cross barriers or dodge predators, but not to those of gliding and soaring forms such as many birds of prey and some seabirds that are optimised for enduring flight.”
Dr. Emmanuel de Margerie, who also worked on the research, said the team "focused on the middle part of the arm bones because we knew those sections contain clear flight-related signals in birds."
The study, which was received in July 2017 and accepted on Jan. 31, 2018, was authored by Voeten, Jorge Cubo, Emmanuel de Margerie, Martin Röper, Vincent Beyrand, Stanislav Bureš, Paul Tafforeau and Sophie Sanchez.
The researchers used a non-invasive technique called phase-contrast synchroron microtomography to examine the fossilized bones and get a better idea of what the Archaeopteryx could do in the air.
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Twelve fossils of Archaeopteryx have been found, the first discovered in the late 19th century by famed German palaeontologist Hermann von Meyer. The most recent was discovered by an amateur collector in 2010, announced in February 2014 and described scientifically this year.
Archaeopteryx possessed feathers, like a modern-day bird. However, it also possessed a "long, stiff, frond-feathered tail" and teeth, along with bones in its hands, shoulders and pelvis that were not fused.
Other dinosaurs also took to flight, such as the Pteranodon and Pterodactyls, but the Archaeopteryx is a link between dinosaurs and birds, effectively an intermediary, giving its flight patterns added importance.
Voeten notes that because of Archaeopteryx's differences from modern-day birds, more analysis is needed to figure out exactly how it used its wings.
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"However, because Archaeopteryx lacked the pectoral adaptations to fly like modern birds, the way it achieved powered flight must also have been different," Voeten said. "We will need to return to the fossils to answer the question on exactly how this Bavarian icon of evolution used its wings."
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