The new species, a member of the poorly understood scansoriopterygid group of dinosaurs, likely weighed less than 450 grams (15.9 ounces), with a skull that was a mere four centimeters (1.6 inches) long. It also had filamentous feathers, unlike the feathers of modern birds. If Yi qi indeed flew, either by flapping or gliding, it would be a dinosaur first, though ancient reptile called pterosaurs flew quite capably using a membranous wing. “No other bird or dinosaur has a wing of the same kind,” IVPP paleontologist Xu Xing said in a statement. “We don’t know if Yi qi was flapping or gliding, or both, but it definitely evolved a wing that is unique in the context of the transition from dinosaurs to birds.” The researchers reported evidence of membrane-like tissue attached to the bizarre bones, lending support to the idea that Yi qi may have sported wings.
But not every paleontologist is convinced of the newly discovered dinosaur’s aerial capabilities. Richard Prum, a Yale University ornithologist, told New Scientist that while the fossil’s feathers display “lots of new morphology,” he detected little evidence of membranous tissue in the photos the authors included in their paper.
As the particulars of Yi qi’s aeronautic proclivities are worked out, the find still represents an interesting twist on the evolution of flight. “All told, this is an unexpected, exciting specimen that changes our views on the evolution of flight in dinosaurs,” Mike Habib of the University of Southern California who was not involved in the study, told The Guardian. “It appears that multiple types of wing surfaces evolved within the relatives of birds, making the origins of avian flight potentially more complicated than previously thought.”