Laser Technique Helps to Get New Insights into Four-Winged Dinosaur

The researchers studied a small feathered dinosaur called Anchiornis, meaning "close to bird", which was the size of a raven and lived about 160 million years ago.

The study produced the first highly detailed body outline of such a feathered dinosaur, "a real landmark in our understanding of avian origins", Pittman said. Incredibly, Anchiornis exhibited many traits of modern birds, pushing back the emergence of important bird-like features to the Late Jurassic.

A technique using high-powered lasers to reveal hidden soft tissue alongside bones in fossils is giving scientists insight into one of the major evolutionary transitions in the history of life: small feathered dinosaurs taking flight as birds.

"We shone violet lasers at Anchiornis specimens in a dark room to cause them to glow in the dark, revealing incredible details", said Pittman.

"Laser-stimulated fluorescence (LSF) imaging can broaden the scope of data available from fossils by revealing morphological details that are otherwise invisible under white or ultraviolet light conditions", wrote the authors.

The folds of skin in front of the elbow and behind the wrist (called patagia) were covered in feathers, just like in modern living birds. It boasts numerous skeletal and soft tissue characteristics found in birds. The study of these early feathered, winged dinos-with their unique body shapes, feathering, and apparent aerodynamics-have contributed greatly to our understanding of the origin of birds and early flight evolution.

Anchiornis had "drumstick-shaped legs, a slender tail and an arm that looks just like a modern bird wing", Pittman explained, adding: "We even have foot scales preserved in the Anchiornis specimens that are just like chickens today". The creature also had propatagia, or membranes, that "could produce a relatively straight arm, a posture broadly found in many living gliding birds", the study says. It also appears that Anchiornis was able to control its tail separately from its limbs, allowing for fine bodily control while gliding through the air.

However, scientists weren't able to determine if the creature could fly or if it merely scurried around on the ground and up into trees.

Coloured areas represent different fossil specimens and black areas are approximated reconstructions.

"The fact that we find this really neat wing in an older bird-like animal is really exciting", said Pittman.

  • Carolyn Briggs