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Is the Debate Over Flight in Earliest Birds Over?

An artist's impression of how a prehistoric bird might have looked based on current evidence.
(Image: Stephanie Abramowicz/scientific illustrator at the Natural History Museum, Los Angeles County)
An artist's impression of how a prehistoric bird might have looked based on current evidence. (Image: Stephanie Abramowicz/scientific illustrator at the Natural History Museum, Los Angeles County)

A new study has found some ancient birds were able to fly with ease, just like the birds of today. Scientists have known that some dinosaurs had feathers, but whether they were able to fly has always been hotly debated.

A team led by Dr. Luis M. Chiappe of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles has studied a well-preserved wing of a bird that had lived 125 million years ago. The fossil was found in limestone at Las Hoyas, central Spain.

“The new fossil provides us with a unique glimpse into the anatomy of the wing of the birds that lived amongst some of the largest dinosaurs,” Chiappe said.

Guillermo Navalón, a Ph.D. student from University of Bristol and lead author of the study, explained that not only were the bones preserved in the wing, but also the complex network of muscles.

“It’s very surprising that despite being skeletally quite different from their modern counterparts, these primitive birds show striking similarities in their soft anatomy,” he said.

Original photography of the specimen described in Scientific Reports. (Image: University of Bristol)

Original photography of the specimen described in ‘Scientific Reports.’ (Image: University of Bristol)

It is the first time “an intricate arrangement of fibers, which matches anatomically with a complex network of ligaments, muscles, and tendons present in modern-day birds,” University of Bristol wrote in a statement.

“This network ensures the position and controls the fine adjustments of the wing’s main feathers, allowing living birds to fly efficiently and master the sky.”

Fossils such as these are allowing scientists to dissect the most intricate aspects of the early evolution of the flight of birds, Dr Chiappe said in a press release.

With a primitive bird having these structures in its wing, it supports the following idea:

Some ancient birds indeed had the ability to fly in a similar fashion to the birds of today.

Chiappe said: “The anatomical match between the fibers, 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.”

The co-author of the study, Dr Jesús Marugán Lobón from Universidad Autónoma in Madrid, said: “Fossils such as these are an open window to deep time, and allow scientists access to the most intricate aspects of the early evolution of the flight of birds.”

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