During a blip in time in the late Jurassic, a dinosaur that weighed no more than a chinchilla flung itself from tree to tree, spread its wings and tried to soar. In theory, it sounds beautiful — an early attempt at flight before birds figured out the blueprint.
In practice, it was chaotic.
The dinosaur, Yi qi, only barely managed to glide, stretching out and shimmying its skin-flap, downy-feathered wings in a valiant attempt at flying. "It was rocketing from tree to tree, desperately trying not to slam into something," said Alex Dececchi, a paleontologist at Mount Marty University in South Dakota. "It wouldn't be something pleasant."
Unsurprisingly, Yi qi went extinct, presumably doomed by its sheer lack of competence in the air. In a study published in the journal iScience, Dececchi and other researchers analyzed how Yi qi and the dinosaur Ambopteryx could have flown. Both animals were scansoriopterygids, a little-known group of small dinosaurs. The researchers did not expect the two to be great flyers, but their results painted a picture of bumbling creatures that weren't at home on the ground, among the trees or in the sky.
Found by a farmer in northeastern China, Yi qi was first described in 2015 by paleontologists Xing Xu, of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and Xiaoting Zheng, of Linyi University. When Dececchi first learned about the dinosaur's bizarre anatomy, he was taken aback. In addition to the batlike wings, which had never before been observed in a dinosaur, Yi qi had an extraordinary long bone jutting out from its wrist. "Like Edward Scissorhands," he said.
Dececchi ran the dinosaur through a panoply of mathematical models to test its flight ability. "I tried to give them the benefit of the doubt: the biggest wings, the most muscles, the fastest flapping," he said.
The creatures failed even the most generous models. Their pectoral muscles were too weak. They could not sprint fast enough to launch themselves from the ground. They were poor turners. They could not even take off after running on an incline while furiously flapping their wings.
The only scenario left was a bumbling glide wherein the dinosaurs stretched out their arms like flying squirrels and jumped from tree to tree, clattering among the branches.
Although their failed flights offer little insight into how true birds evolved from dinosaurs, they shed light on the many ways that creatures tried to take to the skies. "We see how messy this evolutionary transition was," said paleontologist Steve Brusatte.
In Dececchi's eyes, the dinosaurs might have skirted doom if they had more time to evolve past the equivalent of their awkward teen years. "Then today, you might have had bats, birds and these weird and wonderful guys," he said.