Zombie hands to bird wings – the evolution of the dinosaur wrist

By Ed Yong | March 3, 2010 8:30 am

Hold your arms out with your palm oriented vertically, as if you were trying to shake someone’s hand. Now without moving your forearm, bend your hand downwards towards the floor.  Unless you are freakishly flexible, you will only have managed to a measly acute angle. But if you were a bird, you could bend your wrist so that your hand pointed back towards your body. These incredibly flexible wrists allow birds to fold their wings and they help with flying. And many dinosaurs could do something similar.

Many older depictions of small raptors, including the Jurassic Park films, have them holding their arms in a zombie-like stance – arms out at the front and hands palms-down. More recently, artists have portrayed them with more bird-like postures, with their hands bent back towards the forearm. How far the hand could actually bend has been an open question, so Corwin Sullivan from the Chinese Academy of Sciences decided to answer it by piecing together the evolution of the raptor wrist together with Dave Hone (who blogs at Archosaur Musings), Xing Xu and Fucheng Zhang,

Sullivan examined the hands of several dinosaurs, from large hunters like Allosaurus, to smaller, more bird-like species like Caudipteryx and Deinonychus, to living examples like the turkey. He showed that the asymmetric wrists first appeared in this dynasty of predators. They gradually became increasingly asymmetric and backward-bending, culminating in the flexible versions of early birds. This is particularly a tale of two wrist bones – the radiale, which became increasingly wedge-like, and the semilunate carpal, which developed a rounded, convex dip. 

These changes to the raptor wrist were already well underway before the group developed powered flight and possibly even before the evolution of long feathers on the arms. For the moment, it’s not clear what advantage the dinosaurs would have gained from their slightly more flexible wrists.

Some scientists have suggested that it was an adaptation for hunting but Hone says, “It’s hard to see how [that] could have worked. Certainly we still see the wrist change occurring in herbivorous and omnivorous lineages like oviraptorosaurs and ornithomimids, which doesn’t really help the ‘predatory’ angle.”

The later benefits are clearer, especially in smaller dinosaurs with arms covered in long feathers. In most species, these almost-wings were totally incapable of flight. They were probably used for display, or other roles like keeping warm or sheltering eggs. In any case, Sullivan thinks that the bendy wrists were adaptations that allowed the dinosaurs to protect these precious plumes by holding them off the ground or preventing them from snagging on vegetation. What’s less clear is whether the longer feathers fuelled the evolution of the more flexible wrists or if the latter created an opportunity to develop the former.

Either way, birds inherited these adaptations and put them to another purpose entirely – flying. After the powerful downward flap, birds fold the wing slightly inwards during the upstroke. This reduces the drag on the wing and it would be impossible without the anatomical heirlooms they inherited from their dinosaur forebears.

Understanding the evolution of the dinosaur wrist is an important part of piecing together the origins of birds and the evolution of flight. “This seems to be a much under-studied area,” says Hone. “We can now see that this bird-like wrist started to evolve well before birds took to the air, and it opens up the possibility that feathers were more important to some dinosaurs than perhaps previously thought.”

Reference: Sullivan, C., Hone, D., Xu, X., & Zhang, F. (2010). The asymmetry of the carpal joint and the evolution of wing folding in maniraptoran theropod dinosaurs Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2009.2281

More on predatory dinosaurs: 

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Comments (10)

  1. jdaniel

    Just to clarify, are you talking about abduction of the hand (a wrist movement) or pronation of the hand (a forearm movement)? I say it this way, because even though pronation for us is really a forearm movement, most people consider it a hand movement and just wanted to be clear what you meant. The description you gave of the dinosaurs with their palms facing downward is a pronated position, not an abducted position, which is what birds do, and thus makes this discussion confusing.

  2. Science&Honor

    @jdaniel The author is essentially saying that evidence shows that the pronated position we typically envisioned for dinosaurs (such as various raptors) was not the case, and that dinosaurs of this type were evolving the ability to increase the range of motion of abduction of the wrist in a backwards facing direction, like a bird wing.

  3. jdaniel

    Yes, well we already knew that. The normally pronated position was a layman’s misperception and always has been. Don’t get me wrong, I like the study, but the importance of the study was not that dinosaurs didn’t pronate their hands, but how far could they abduct their hands and how did it change over the evolution of the clade. The reconstructions have been terribly inconsistent and this study provides guidance on what angles are reasonable.
    The pronated hands has always been a puzzlement to me anyway. We don’t even do that. Start with your arms at your sides and bend your forearm, where does your palm end up? At least for me, they end up facing medially, same as anyone jogging down the street. The pronated position only makes sense if one is looking at a quadroped standing on its back legs. I expect that if you tried to walk while keeping your hands pronated, you find quickly find it bothersome because it is not a natural resting position.
    The difference of course between us and them is that we have a small range of abduction and birds have a much wider range, but how that range developed hasn’t really been rigorously examined until now.
    I guess my issue here is the laxity of terms people are using to describe the motions, confusing the movements and thus confusing the discussion.

  4. Nathan Myers

    I know the left-hand picture position as “bunny hands“. Theropods were entirely incapable of getting their hands into such a pose. As I understand the flexible wrists of maniraptorans, they could, like birds, flop their hands back parallel to their forearms. That’s clever, but seems more useful to birds folding their wings than to your average theropod.
    It still seems right to reconstruct theropods stalking around with their palms facing one another, menacingly. Certainly the bunny-hands posture is just as absurd as it ever was.

  5. As I understand the flexible wrists of maniraptorans, they could, like birds, flop their hands back parallel to their forearms.

    Not quite that far. The paper suggests that most were a lot less flexible than that although they could flop their hands back towards their forearms to some extent. Deinonychus’s writst, for example, was actually pretty inflexible.

  6. Nathan Myers

    I found Corwin Sullivan’s description of the hand motions involved a little easier (sorry) to follow, despite that he (unlike Ed) has us start out with our hands in a position theropods could never have achieved:
    http://archosaurmusings.wordpress.com/2010/03/03/guest-post-birds-in-a-flap-thanks-to-dinosaur-wrists/
    I find it helps me to picture the flexibility involved as trying to touch my elbow with my little finger while keeping my thumb pointed forward. (I don’t get very close, but hope for improvement with practice. :-)
    Thank you for the correction: maniraptorans were a big group, since pruned and radiated. Certainly all the extant ones achieve wrist flexibility I can only dream of.

  7. Cal King

    One of the so-called “dinosaurs” in this article is Caudipteryx. Caudipteryx, according to Alan Feduccia of the Univ. of North Carolina, is a flightless bird, not a dinosaur. He says that there is not a single uniquely dinosaurian character in this fossil, but many bird-like characters. The fact that it also has feathers is strong evidence that it is a bird. That shows the claim that the bird wrist evolved before birds did is simply a bad mistake. In fact, the bird hand, which has fingers 2-3-4, is strong evidence that birds did not evolve from a theropod, which has fingers 1-2-3. The evidence is so strong that some cladists had to invent an ad hoc hypothesis called “frame shift” to try to explain how a hand with fingers 1-2-3 can become a hand with fingers 2-3-4. Worse, one of the original authors (namely Mr. Wagner) of the paper claiming a frame shift no longer believes that a frame shift occurred. Just like the emperor in his new clothes, the cladistic emperor continues to march on, even after his clothelessness had been revealed. The cladistic emperor’s new clothe is of course the dinosaurian origin of birds.

  8. Zach Miller

    Cal, don’t listen to Feduccia. The man has a very mysterious axe to grind regarding bird origins. The idea that a frame shift occured is probably valid, but it didn’t have to happen down in the non-avian dinosaur side of the Theropoda. For all we know, it’s unique to neornithine birds, or may be variable across Aves. I don’t think there’s been a strong sample size taken for manual digit formation across living birds (maybe there has and I’m unaware of it).

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