Scientists in China on Wednesday described one of the weirdest flying creatures ever discovered: a pigeon-size dinosaur with wings like a bat that lived not long before the first birds.
The dinosaur, named Yi qi (meaning "strange wing" in Mandarin and pronounced EE-chee), lived about 160 million years ago during the Jurassic Period, about 10 million years before the earliest-known bird, Archaeopteryx.
It is considered a cousin of birds, but boasted membranous wings made of skin — like those of the extinct flying reptiles known as pterosaurs, which lived at the same time, and bats, which appeared more than 100 million years later — instead of the plume-like feathers of birds.
Each wing was supported by a clawed, three-fingered hand and a rod-like bone extending from the wrist. One of the fingers was much longer than the others. Feathers from around its head, neck and limbs were more similar to hairs or bristles than to bird flight feathers.
"It's hard to imagine that it could have flapped very effectively, since the rod-like bone was presumably a fairly unwieldy thing to have attached to the wrist," said paleontologist Corwin Sullivan of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing. "So our guess would be that Yi qi was gliding or maybe combining gliding with some relatively inefficient flapping."
Before aviation pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright flew the world's first successful airplane, others dabbled with all manner of experimental flying machines. There was an analogous period of flight experimentation among dinosaurs before small feathered ones evolved into birds.
Finding a dinosaur with membranous wings was "quite amazing and unexpected," Sullivan said. "Yi qi illustrates the flight-related evolutionary tinkering that was going on in the dinosaur precursors to birds."
Patches of the membranous wing tissue were preserved in the fossil discovered in Hebei province by a local farmer, but the overall wing shape remains uncertain.
The dinosaur probably lived in trees and used peg-like teeth to munch lizards, mammals and insects, and perhaps fruit.
"This guy is not far from the first birds, in fact," said paleontologist Xing Xu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Linyi University. "It belongs to a bizarre dinosaur group called the scansoriopterygids, which are closely related to the most primitive birds such as Archaeopteryx."
Yi qi is the shortest name of any of the more than 700 identified dinosaur species.
The research appears in the journal Nature.