With the discovery of 125-million-year-old fossil, a new study has tried to answer whether prehistoric birds could actually take to the air and fly.
Some of the most ancient birds were capable of performing aerodynamic feats in a manner similar to many living birds, according to the University of Bristol study.
Birds have an enormously long evolutionary history: the earliest of them, the famed Archaeopteryx, lived 150 million years ago in what is now southern Germany. This new fossil preserves not only the articulated bones of the forelimb but also abundant remains of the plumage and of the soft-tissues of the wing.
Specifically, it documents, for the first time, an intricate arrangement of fibres which matches anatomically with a complex network of ligaments, muscles and tendons present in modern-day birds. This network ensures the position and controls the fine adjustments of the wing’s main feathers, allowing living birds to fly efficiently and master the sky.
The presence of these structures in the wing of such a primitive bird supports the notion that at least some of the most ancient birds were capable of performing aerodynamic feats in a fashion similar to those of many living birds.
Lead author Guillermo Navaln said that it’s very surprising that despite being skeletally quite different from their modern counterparts, these primitive birds show striking similarities in their soft anatomy.
The anatomical match between the fibres 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 Dr Luis Chiappe.
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.
Co-author Jesus Marugan Lobon from Universidad Autonoma in Madrid said that fossils such as this are an open window to deep time and allow scientists access to the most intricate aspects of the early evolution of the flight of birds.
The study is published in Scientific Reports.