Four-Winged Dino Clinches the Case for Bird Evolution

By Eliza Strickland | September 28, 2009 10:08 am

four-winged-dinoA feathered dinosaur unearthed in a Chinese quarry has added another solid piece of evidence to the theory that birds descended from dinosaurs. The newly uncovered fossil of the species Anchiornis huxleyi dates from the Late Jurassic period, 151-161 million years ago, and therefore predates the earliest known bird, the Archaeopteryx. Paleontologists say this represents the final proof that dinosaurs were ancestral to birds. “Drawing the tree of life, it’s fairly obvious that feathers arose before Archaeopteryx appears in the fossil record” [BBC News], says paleontologist Michael Benton.

The creature, described in a paper [pdf] in Nature, was covered in the short feathers known as “dino-fuzz,” and had longer feathers on both its forelimbs and its back legs that formed primitive wings. The four-winged dinosaurs also had feathers on their feet and wing-like attachments on the arms and legs. But they could probably only glide, as their plumage was insufficient for powered flight [Nature News].

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Image: Zhao Chuang, Xing Lida. An artist’s rendering of Anchiornis huxleyi.

MORE ABOUT: birds, dinosaurs, evolution
  • Karl

    What does seem odd is that it has forelimbs and wings. Aren’t wings supposed to be an adapted forelimb?

  • goulet

    It doesn’t have forelimbs AND wings. If you read carefully, or look at the picture carefully, you’ll see that the forelimbs have long feathers. and the only limb-looking limbs are the back legs

  • cam

    read again karl. “longer feathers on both its forelimbs and its back legs that formed primitive wings.”

  • Brian

    The illustration (I’m assuming it’s based on the fossil) shows leg feathers that appear more like spurs than an extra set of wings, but even if they were more like an extra pair of wings, it’s not all that shocking.

    It’s possible that these provided some advantage to these primitive gliders but that as the forelimbs evolved into dominant wings, the larger backlegs (even with feathers) were a liability and so evolution favored animals with smaller, lighter, more aerodynamic back legs.

    There’s probably a good reason why you don’t see any flying birds with large, well-muscled legs these days.

  • amphiox

    I read somewhere that the feathers were symmetric and therefore not aerodynamically suitable for flight. But wouldn’t this also preclude gliding, since doesn’t gliding require assymmetric feathers too? I suppose it would not preclude parachuting or leaping.

  • Karl

    Sorry about that, thanks for the correction. The leg to the back looked like a smaller limb and I interpreted the article with that bias. Thanks again for the correction.

  • Oran

    Why do they have to be for gliding? Maybe they were adapted for temperature regulation in climates with huge temperature swings.

  • Buzz Aldrin

    If these “wings” were mutations for some natural advantage as supposed in the theory of natural selection, then what could a flightless, glideless wings were for?

    IMO, initially these apendages were perhaps used as cover, as in shielding from fights. The ability to fly was perhaps discovered accidentally by pre-archaeopteryx era dino-birds.

  • scribbler

    Is it just me?

    All of the hoaxes of the past century came from far off lands where documentation was scarce if there was any at all?

    See, I’d have a much easier time of this if they had found these fossils BEFORE the theory was proffered…


  • Zachary

    So not allowed to discover corroborating evidence after a theory is offered, only the evidence in favor prior to a systematic explanation is valid? Good thing no one told Milliken, Maxwell, Einstein, Lavoisier, Pasteur, ………

  • Arv Edgeworth

    Now if we can figure out how birds went from tough skin and no glands to tender skin with glands; went from the lowest metabolic rate on earth to the highest; no muscles for flight to said muscles; developed a system to control body heat; developed different lungs, heart, eyes, reproductive systems, etc.; went from a creature that kept growing its whole life to a creature that reaches a growth limit and stops like other creatures, just to mention a few things we haven’t figured out yet. Of course feathers come from different genetic information than scales do and attach differently to the skin. Oh wait, I’m sorry, we’re not supposed to look for differences, just similarities. Well, they do kind of look like reptiles with the feathers off.

  • amphiox

    Buzz Aldrin #8:

    Other possibilities: parachuting after jumping from trees or cliffs, so they can climb higher and faster and get down safely more easily, aiding in jumping to escape predators or catch prey, sexual display, a net for catching insects, etc.

    If it turns out they were not used for gliding, flying, or parachuting, then they are not wings. They are arms and legs with long feathers attached to them.

  • amphiox

    Arv Edgeworth #11:

    “tough skin and no glands to tender skin with glands”

    Evolved in theropod dinosaurs. Also, mammals did this independently, so this isn’t a hard thing to achieve. Living birds still have both types of skin – touch, scaly skin on their legs.

    “lowest metabolic rate on earth to the highest”

    Evolved in theropod dinosaurs, and probably increased some more in birds. But reptiles don’t have the “lowest metabolic rate on earth” so what’s your point? High metabolic rate has been evolved independently numerous times – mammals, birds and theropod dinosaurs, great white sharks, bluefin tuna, just to name a few. Increasing metabolic rate is a very easy thing to evolve.

    “no muscles for flight to said muscles”

    Flight muscles are pectoral muscles. Reptiles already had them from the start. It was just a question of making them bigger. Not difficult.

    “developed a system to control body heat”

    Already present in theropod dinosaurs.

    “developed different lungs, heart, eyes, reproductive systems, etc”

    Lungs – already present in theropod dinosaurs. Heart – already present earlier in the archosaur lineage, crocodylians have complex four-chambered hearts. Eyes – already present in earliest reptiles, bird eyes aren’t fundamentally that different. Reproductive system – already present in theropod dinosaurs

    “went from a creature that kept growing its whole life to a creature that reaches a growth limit and stops like other creatures”

    Already present in theropod dinosaurs

    “Well, they do kind of look like reptiles with the feathers off”

    No, they look like “reptiles” (dinosaurs) with the feathers ON.

  • amphiox

    Oh, and the embryonic cell layer from which feathers develop is present in crocodylians, but sloughs off during development. The archosaur common ancestor of birds, dinosaurs and crocodylians already had it.

  • Zachary

    New plan, take personal ignorance to systems already well understood, claim no one can make sense of them because you can’t, and act as if it somehow supports a completely different theory with no evidence in its favor. The argument from personal incredulity, really people?

  • goulet

    Good lord. How many people are still ignorant to the fact that birds are reptiles??? They’re included in the clade of archosaurs.

    We’ve already figured out birds, people. The bigger mystery is where turtles fit on the tree of life :)

  • Michael

    My first thought is that I hope this isn’t another hoax perpetrated by some Chinese folks looking for fame and fortune and a bit of fun at the West’s expense. It has happened more than once before.

    If confirmed [with more fossil evidence] it would add to the growing evidence that birds are latter day dinosaurs. That is pretty cool, as science goes nowadays.

  • Harry Cook

    I have been trying to find out about the size and weight of this creature, can anyone help?

  • dave howard

    Saw something on TV about it. Looks to be about the size of a hawk. Scientists on show agreed that it was a glider and in wind tunnel tests figured out that the back legs extended behind it as a sort of rudder. My guess is that as wings evolved, the “rear wings” became redundant and only created drag.

  • Arv Edgeworth

    For those of you that still believe dinosaurs turned into birds, did you know the word “gullible” isn’t in the dictionary?

    Have any of you ever considered the thought that maybe some dinosaurs could fly, and some birds can’t? A flying dinosaur wouldn’t prove they turned into a bird kind, which is very different. I just wonder why you are so determined that they have to. Couldn’t be because of your philosophical worldview could it?

    You have probably also accepted the nonsense that the whale has hind limb bones that are vestigial and serve no function, that were left over from when they had four legs and walked on land. You do know don’t you that those bones are organ anchors and they can’t reproduce without them? They are not connected to the vertibral column with no evidence they ever were. The drawings of the so-called whale evolution were from a few bones and an artist’s reconstruction of what they may have looked like.

    Change “Once upon a time, long ago and far away,” to “millions of years ago,” and suddenly it becomes believable. You need to rename this. Call it: “From the Goo to You, By Way of the Zoo.”

  • cleon dann

    i know that… i think it is an older post… i love to collect information about dinosaurs… and mammals… I also like extra terrestrial things and also want to know about universe…

    cleon dann

  • Carl

    Wow, Arv, I see that you had a big bowl of crazy for breakfast, and apparently went back for seconds.

  • Birdzilla

    Still trying to prove this silly evolution bull kaka trying to prove this nonsense that all the birds evolved from dinasours WHAT POPPYCOCK

  • Eupraxsophy

    It’s no more POPPYCOCK then Creationism, or it’s dressed-up name Intelligent Design. If this does turn out to be a hoax like the Pelt Down Man or Intelligent Design then the truth will expose it as deception.

    I only hope that if it is true and scientist are objective about weighing it with truth as opposed to being doubtful and biased like some I.D. proponents as I suspect, then the truth will be known.

    Knowledge and wisdom are the subjects to the nobility of truth so if thy caution thyself not to be the fool, yet thy have a boastful tongue let it be that which rest upon thy head the Crown of Truth. For integrity of the wise is found in truth, so where shall it be found in that of the fool?

  • amphiox

    The thing about that celebrated hoax from China is that it was made by gluing together two REAL fossils, both found in that quarry, close to each other. One was a dinosaur, and the other an ancient bird. And BOTH fossils (as far as I know) turned out to be previously unknown species, and BOTH fossils have advanced our knowledge of the evolution of birds and dinosaurs.

  • Xenacanthus

    Interesting find. My biggest concern would be the dating of the Chinese formations versus that of the Solnhofen, to indeed ensure the Chinese fossils were older than those of Archaeopterix. Absolute dates versus relative dates can be an issue, and in a case like this, I would want to be certain I didn’t jump the gun any. Not knowing how the dates have been determined – I find Archaeopterix at 150 MY in several sources but don’t know how that date has been obtained – it’s hard to analyze from limited information.


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