"Long before it's in the papers"
October 07, 2015


Birds flew over dinosaurs’ heads, study suggests

Oct. 7, 2015
Courtesy of the Natural History 
Museum of Los Angeles County
and World Science staff

At least some of the most an­cient birds, living in the age of the di­no­saurs, flied as skill­fully as many mod­ern birds, re­sults of a new study sug­gest.

Sci­en­tists stud­ied the in­tri­cate ar­range­ment of mus­cles and lig­a­ments that con­trolled the main feath­ers of the wing of an an­cient, toothed bird. These struc­tures were “es­sent­ially mod­ern” in arrange­ment, according to the researchers.

Artist's re­construc­tion of a bird si­mi­lar to the spe­ci­men exam­ined in a new study. (Credit: Ste­pha­nie A­bra­mo­wicz)

Birds have a long his­to­ry: the ear­li­est, the famed Ar­chae­op­ter­ix, lived 150 mil­lion years ago in what is to­day south­ern Germany. But wheth­er these early birds were ca­pa­ble of fly­ing, and if so, well, has re­mained shrouded in sci­en­tif­ic con­tro­ver­sy. 

Pa­le­on­tol­ogists in the new study an­a­lyzed what they called the ex­cep­tion­ally pre­served wing of a 125-mil­lion-year-old bird from cen­tral Spain. Be­yond the bones pre­served in the fos­sil, the ti­ny wing re­veals de­tails of a com­plex net­work of mus­cles that in mod­ern birds con­trols the fi­ne ad­just­ments of the wing’s main feath­ers.

“The ana­tom­i­cal match be­tween the mus­cle net­work 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,” said Lu­is M. Chi­appe, the in­ves­ti­ga­t­ion’s sen­ior sci­ent­ist.

“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,” said Chi­appe, who di­rects the Di­no­saur In­sti­tute at the Nat­u­ral His­to­ry Mu­se­um of Los An­ge­les County.

“De­spite be­ing skele­tally quite dif­fer­ent from their mod­ern coun­ter­parts, these prim­i­tive birds show strik­ing si­m­i­lar­i­ties in their soft an­atomy,” added Guillermo Na­va­lón, a doc­tor­al can­di­date at the Un­ivers­ity of Bris­tol in the U.K. and lead au­thor of the re­port, pub­lished in the jour­nal Sci­en­tif­ic Re­ports. 

So an­cient birds may have flown over the heads of di­no­saurs, but some as­pects of the pre­cise flight modes of these early fliers still re­main un­clear, the au­thors added.

* * *

Send us a comment on this story, or send it to a friend

y Sign up for


On Home Page         


  • An­cient tsu­nami claimed to be almost as high as Chrys­ler build­ing

  • Com­et watched by probe is act­ually two in one, scient­ists say


  • Study links global warming, war for first time—in Syria

  • Smart­er mice with a “hum­anized” gene?

  • Was black­mail essen­tial for marr­iage to evolve?

  • Plu­to has even cold­er “twin” of sim­ilar size, studies find


  • F­rog said to de­scribe its home through song

  • Even r­ats will lend a help­ing paw: study

  • D­rug may undo aging-assoc­iated brain changes in ani­mals

At least some of the most ancient birds, during the age of the dinosaurs, flied as skillfully as many modern birds, results of a new study suggest. Scientists studied the intricate arrangement of the muscles and ligaments that controlled the main feathers of the wing of an ancient bird. Birds have a long history: the earliest, the famed Archaeopteryx, lived 150 million years ago in what is today southern Germany. But whether these early birds were capable of flying, and if so, well, has remained shrouded in scientific controversy. Paleontologists in the new study analyzed what they called the exceptionally preserved wing of a 125-million-year-old bird from central Spain. Beyond the bones preserved in the fossil, the tiny wing reveals details of a complex network of muscles that in modern birds controls the fine adjustments of the wing’s main feathers. “The anatomical match between the muscle network 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,” said Luis M. Chiappe, the investigation’s senior scientist. “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,” said Chiappe, who directs the Dinosaur Institute at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. “Despite being skeletally quite different from their modern counterparts, these primitive birds show striking similarities in their soft anatomy,” added Guillermo Navalón, a doctorate candidate at the University of Bristol in the U.K. and lead author of the report, published in the journal Scientific Reports So ancient birds may have flown over the heads of dinosaurs, but some aspects of the precise flight modes of these early fliers still remain unclear, the authors added.