Birds have roamed the Earth for a solid 150 million years. The earliest of these was called the Archaeopteryx. One question has remained a mystery for scientists. Were these early birds flying, and if they were, how well did they fly?

A new fossil find is helping answer this question. In central Spain, the well-preserved right wing of a 125-million-year-old bird is providing some answers. This fossil is incredibly well-preserved. The articulated bones of the forelimb and even remains of the plumage and the soft-tissues of the wing are seen.

Here’s an image of the wing and notes from the researchers.

Fossil wing in-depth

Photograph and interpretive drawing of slab. Black-lined inset in the photograph delineates the area of the transition between bone and soft tissue magnified in Fig. 2A. Abbreviations: alp, alular patagium; cl, calamus; ks, keratinous sheath; mc-II; metacarpal II; mc-III, metacarpal III; pf, plumulaceous feathers; pr, primary remex; prg, propatagium; psg, postpatagium; r, radius; sr, secondary remex; ul, ulna; I-pI, first phalanx of digit I; I-u, ungual phalanx of digit I; II-pI, first phalanx of digit II; II-pII, second phalanx of digit II; II-u, ungual phalanx of digit II; III-pI, first phalanx of digit III; III-pII, second phalanx of digit III.

What surprised Guillermo Navalon (lead author of the study) and a team of paleontologists were the similarities in the soft anatomy of this fossil compared with modern birds. The arrangement of fibres matches up with the network of ligaments, tendons and muscles seen in today’s birds. It’s this network that gives today’s birds the control they need to fly.

“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, Director of the Dinosaur Institute, NHM, Los Angeles County.

Co-author Dr Jesús Marugán Lobón calls fossils like these “an open window to deep time and allow scientists access to the most intricate aspects of the early evolution of the flight of birds.”

This fossil suggests birds were at least competent fliers during the time of the dinosaurs. But, there’s still a lot to learn about the precise mechanics used for flight in early birds.

In their study, the authors write the fossil, “lends strong support to the notion that these primitive avians had achieved aerodynamic competence comparable to those of many modern birds.”

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