The Jurassic dinosaur, named Yi qi, has the shortest name ever given to a dino: Yi qi, pronounced “ee chee,” means “strange wing.” It also appears to be the earliest known flying non-avian dinosaur. At 160 million years old, it is older than the first known birds, such as Archaeopteryx.
“This is the most unexpected discovery I have ever made, even though I have found a few really bizarre dinosaurs in my career,” noted paleontologist Xu Xing of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) in Beijing told Discovery News.
“I know the complexity of the dino-bird transition, but this new find still shocks me,” added Xu, who is the lead author of the study, published in the journal Nature. “It demonstrates how extreme the experimentation for dinosaurs to get in air is.”
He and his colleagues unearthed the remains for Yi qi at Hebei Province in China. At first, the scientists puzzled over rod-like bones that extended from each wrist of the tiny dinosaur that weighed about the same as a modern pigeon. Colleagues joked that the dino used the bones as ski poles or giant chopsticks.
Co-author Corwin Sullivan, a Canadian paleontologist now based at the IVPP, determined their real purpose after he pored over scientific literature on flying and gliding animals for a different project.
Sullivan recalled that he “came across a paragraph in a textbook that said flying squirrels have a strut of cartilage attached to either the wrist or elbow to help support the flight membrane. I immediately thought, wait a minute–that sounds familiar!”
Further investigation of Yi qi’s remains uncovered patches of membranous tissue that covered its wings. While the dinosaur did have feathers, they were more like hairs, bristles or streamers, and would not have been capable of forming good aerodynamic surfaces, Sullivan said.