Scientists have studied a dinosaur that could use its legs to grab prey in the air

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Modern birds evolved from dinosaurs, but it is not clear how well the ancient dinosaur ancestors of birds could fly. Now, if you look at the fossilized legs of one non-avian dinosaur, you can assume that it could have hunted on the wing like some hawks do today.

Microraptor the size of a crow had finger pads very similar to the fingers of modern predators that can hunt in the air, researchers reported on December 20 in Nature Communications . This means the feathered tetrapod dinosaur probably also used its legs to catch flying prey, say paleobiologist Michael Pittman of the Chinese University of Hong Kong and colleagues.

Other researchers caution that toe pads alone are not enough to make a statement Microraptor air fighter But if the claim holds up, this style of hunting would bolster the debated hypothesis that powered flight evolved many times over among dinosaurs, a feat once attributed exclusively to birds.

The pads of the toes are tufts of scaly flesh on the undersides of dinosaurs’ feet, similar to the “beans” of dogs and cats. Because the pads are the points where a living animal interacts with surfaces, the toe pads give paleontologists “a sense of where the rubber meets the road,” says Alexander Dececki, a paleontologist at Mount Marty University in Yankton, SD, who was not involved. in the study. a new study.

These points of contact can paint a clearer picture of the animal’s behavior, providing “details that the skeleton alone wouldn’t show,” says Thomas Holtz Jr., a dinosaur paleobiologist at the University of Maryland in College Park, who was also not involved in the study. teaching.

To study dinosaur toe pads, Pittman and his colleagues turned to the Shandong Tianyu Museum of Nature in Linyi, China. It probably has the largest collection of feathered dinosaurs in the world, and importantly, they were not carefully prepared,” says Pittman. Many of these dinosaur skeletons are still surrounded by rock where soft tissue may be preserved. Such a sample “gives us the best chance to find this wonderful information about soft tissue,” he says.

Toe pads under the bones of the two splayed toes on this fossil microraptor they fluoresce yellow under the action of a special laser and stand out against the darker surrounding rock. The laser reveals details down to the level of individual scales, such as the sharp scales on the pads of the toes, which probably helped Microraptor to hold struggling prey. The toes are also covered with a layer of fluorescent scales along the upper and lateral parts of the foot.M. PITMAN AND OTHER / NATURE COMMUNICATIONS 2022

Using special lasers that cause the nearly invisible soft tissues of the fossils to fluoresce, the team found 12 specimens with exceptionally well-preserved toe pads among the thousands examined.

The team compared the fossil toe pads with those of 36 types of modern birds, whose toe pads change depending on their lifestyle. For example, birds of prey have protruding toe pads with sharp scales for grasping prey, while terrestrial birds that spend their time walking and running have flatter toe pads. The analysis showed that the pads of the fingers Microraptor and other aspects of the legs, such as the shape of the toe joints and claws, are most similar to modern hawks. This similarity suggests that the dinosaur could have hunted prey in the air and on the ground, as hawks do, the team said.

Other dinosaurs such as the feathered anchiornis, had flatter finger pads and straight claws, indicating a terrestrial lifestyle. This fits with the notion that this dinosaur was not a good flyer, Pittman says.

Anchiornis foot fossils under ultraviolet laser.  The pads of his fingers are comparatively flatter than those of a fossil microraptor.
Toe pads under the light brown toe bones of this fossil Anchiornis appear brown when illuminated by a special laser, standing out from the darker surrounding rock. Compared to Microraptor , Anchiornis had flatter finger pads indicating that it spent more time on the ground.M. PITMAN AND OTHER / NATURE COMMUNICATIONS 2022

The thought of what Microraptor hunted like a hawk, consistent with other fossil evidence. One fossil was found microraptor with a bird in the stomach, and the skeleton and anatomy of soft tissues microraptor indicate a certain ability to fly with an engine.

There is still a lot of work to be done to find out how well the dinosaur could fly. ” Microraptor – not a bird, but a close relative. “The fact that it has legs like a bird of prey does not necessarily mean that it catches prey in exactly the same way,” says Pittman. But the way of life Microraptor which looks like a hawk, “is a strong possibility,” he adds.

A flight could come in handy microraptor while hunting, even if he was no match for modern pilots. Dekeki suggests that anatomy Microraptor probably prevented him from flying away from birds, but may have helped him surprise elusive prey, including flying and gliding animals.

“You just have to be fast or aerobatic enough to catch other objects in your environment,” says Holtz. “So it’s quite likely that [ Microraptor ] sometimes caught objects in the air.”

Other paleontologists are more skeptical that Microraptor hunted on the wing. “It would be a bit of a stretch for me to suggest that Microraptor pursued prey in an aerial context,” says Albert Chen, a paleobiologist at the University of Cambridge. The new finds tell us only what the leg was used for.

Alternative hypotheses, such as a fully or partially terrestrial hunting style, could also fit the data, Holtz says, but “legs certainly play a major role in capturing prey,” whether on the ground or in the air.

Currently, the picture of ecology Microraptor remains unclear, but as lasers continue to increase image resolution, our understanding of dinosaur flight may reach new heights.

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