A small red-crested dinosaur from the Late Jurassic era could help us unlock the origins of flight, now that we have a better idea of what it looked like. Using high-powered lasers, scientists from the University of Hong Kong have illuminated previously invisible soft tissues of the foot-tall Anchiornis, providing, for the first time, a detailed outline of the avian-like creature. The quantitative reconstruction of Anchiornis, which was first discovered in northeastern China in 2009, show that the animal possessed drumstick-shaped legs, long forearms connected by wing-like membranes, foot scales, and a slender tail. “The detail was so well lit that we could see the texture of the skin,” said paleontologist Michael Pittman, who described the discovery in a paper published in Nature Communications this week.
These traits, Pittman added, could help us understand how dinosaurs eventually took to the skies as birds.
As a field of science, paleontology is riddled with mysteries. The skeletons scientists dig up from the ground are seldom complete, and soft tissues like organs, muscle, or skin almost never survive into the present. On the rare occasion that tissues have endured the test of time, they’re unobservable with the naked eye.
That’s where a technique known as laser-stimulated fluorescence comes in. By bouncing wavelengths of light aimed a fossil sample in a dark room, Pittman and his team were able to manifest high-fidelity features that offer clues to how Anchiornis attempted, or even achieved, aerodynamic flight 160 million years ago.
Anchiornis didn’t necessarily fly, of course. Even modern birds with wing folds, like the weka of New Zealand, never escape the pull of gravity.
Nevertheless, the research remains vital to our understanding of where birds came from, since they appeared around the same time, Pittman said.
“What our work does underscore,” Pittman told National Geographic, “is the broad extent to which bird-like dinosaurs were experimenting with their anatomy and functional capabilities before we had the first unequivocal gliding and flying birds.”