Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting nature.com. You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Four-winged dinosaurs from China

Abstract

Although the dinosaurian hypothesis of bird origins is widely accepted, debate remains about how the ancestor of birds first learned to fly. Here we provide new evidence suggesting that basal dromaeosaurid dinosaurs were four-winged animals and probably could glide, representing an intermediate stage towards the active, flapping-flight stage. The new discovery conforms to the predictions of early hypotheses that proavians passed through a tetrapteryx stage.

This is a preview of subscription content

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

$32.00

All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Microraptor gui.
Figure 2: Feathers of IVPP V13352 and TNP00996.
Figure 3: Feathers showing the asymmetrical vanes.

References

  1. Ostrom, J. H. Osteology of Deinonychus antirrhopus, an unusual theropod dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous of Montana. Peabody Mus. Nat. Hist. Bull. 30, 1–165 (1969)

    Google Scholar 

  2. Currie, P. J. Cranial anatomy of Stenonychosaurus inequalis (Saurischia, Theropoda) and its bearing on the origin of birds. Can. J. Earth Sci. 22, 1643–1658 (1985)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Norell, M. A., Clark, J. M., Chiappe, L. M. & Dashzeveg, D. A nesting dinosaur. Nature 378, 774–776 (1995)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Novas, F. E. & Puerta, P. New evidence concerning avian origins from the Late Cretaceous of Patagonia. Nature 387, 390–392 (1998)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Forster, C. A., Sampson, S. D., Chiappe, L. M. & Krause, D. W. The theropod ancestry of birds: new evidence from the Late Cretaceous of Madagascar. Science 279, 1915–1919 (1998)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Ji, Q., Currie, P. J., Norell, M. A. & Ji, S.-A. Two feathered dinosaurs from northeastern China. Nature 393, 753–761 (1998)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Xu, X., Wang, X.-L. & Wu, X.-C. A dromaeosaurid dinosaur with a filamentous integument from the Yixian Formation of China. Nature 401, 262–266 (1999)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Xu, X., Zhou, Z.-H. & Wang, X.-L. The smallest known non-avian theropod dinosaur. Nature 408, 705–708 (2000)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Zhou, Z.-H. & Zhang, F.-C. A long-tailed, seed-eating bird from the Early Cretaceous of China. Nature 418, 405–409 (2002)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Gauthier, J. A. Saurischian monophyly and the origin of birds. Mem. Calif. Acad. Sci. 8, 1–55 (1986)

    Google Scholar 

  11. Holtz, T. R. Jr The phylogenetic position of the Tyrannosauridae: implications for theropod systematics. J. Paleontol. 68, 1100–1117 (1994)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Holtz, T. R. Jr A new phylogeny of the carnivorous dinosaurs. Gaia 15, 5–61 (2000)

    Google Scholar 

  13. Sereno, P. C. The evolution of dinosaurs. Science 284, 2137–2147 (1999)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Norell, M. A., Clark, J. M. & Makovicky, P. in New Perspectives on the Origin and Early Evolution of Birds (eds Gauthier, J. & Gall, L. F.) 49–67 (Peabody Mus. Nat. Hist., Yale Univ., New Haven, 2001)

    Google Scholar 

  15. Xu, X., Norell, M. A., Wang, X.-L., Makovicky, P. & Wu, X.-C. A basal troodontid from the Early Cretaceous of China. Nature 415, 780–784 (2002)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Makovicky, P. & Sues, H.-D. Anatomy and phylogenetic relationships of the theropod dinosaur Microvenator celer from the Lower Cretaceous of Montana. Am. Mus. Novit. 3240, 1–27 (1998)

    Google Scholar 

  17. Norell, M. A. et al. ‘Modern’ feathers on a non-avian dinosaur. Nature 416, 36–37 (2002)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Smith, P. E. et al. Dates and rates in ancient lakes: 40Ar–39Ar evidence for an early Cretaceous for the Jehol Group, northeast China. Can. J. Earth Sci. 32, 1426–1431 (1995)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Jones, T. D., Farlow, J. O., Ruben, J. A., Henderson, D. M. & Hillenius, W. J. Cursoriality in bipedal archosaurs. Nature 406, 716–718 (2000)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Xu, X. Deinonychosaurian Fossils from the Jehol Group of Western Liaoning and the Coelurosaurian Evolution. PhD dissertation, Chinese Academy of Sciences (2002)

    Google Scholar 

  21. Norell, M. A. & Makovicky, P. J. Important features of the dromaeosaur skeleton: information from a new specimen. Am. Mus. Novit. 3215, 1–28 (1997)

    Google Scholar 

  22. Zhang, X.-H. et al. A long-necked therizinosauroid dinosaur from the Upper Cretaceous Iren Dabasu Formation of Nei Mongol, People's Republic of China. Vertebrata PalAsiatica 39, 282–290 (2001)

    Google Scholar 

  23. Sanz, J. L. et al. An Early Cretaceous bird from Spain and its implications for the evolution of avian flight. Nature 382, 442–445 (1996)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Zhang, F.-C. & Zhou, Z.-H. A primitive enantiornithine bird and the origin of feathers. Science 290, 1955–1959 (2000)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Beebe, C. W. A Tetrapteryx Stage in the Ancestry of Birds (Zooligica, New York, 1915)

    Google Scholar 

  26. Heilmann, G. The Origin of Birds (Witherby, London, 1927)

    Google Scholar 

  27. Burnham, D. A. et al. Remarkable new birdlike dinosaur (Theropoda: Maniraptora) from the Upper Cretaceous of Montana. Univ. Kansas Paleont. Contri. (new series) 13, 1–14 (2000)

    Google Scholar 

  28. Feduccia, A. & Tordoff, H. B. Feathers of Archaeopteryx: asymmetric vanes indicate aerodynamic function. Science 203, 1021–1022 (1979)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Ostrom, J. H. The cursorial origin of avian flight. Mem. Calif. Acad. Sci. 8, 73–81 (1986)

    Google Scholar 

  30. Padian, K. & Chiappe, L. M. The origin and early evolution of birds. Biol. Rev. 73, 1–42 (1998)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Burgers, P. & Chiappe, L. M. The wing of Archaeopteryx as a primary thrust generator. Nature 399, 60–62 (1999)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Chatterjee, S. The Rise of Birds (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, Baltimore, 1997)

    Google Scholar 

  33. Yalden, D. W. Climbing Archaeopteryx. Archaeopteryx 15, 107–108 (1997)

    Google Scholar 

  34. Chiappe, L. M., Ji, S.-A., Ji, Q. & Norell, M. A. Anatomy and systematics of the Confuciusornithidae (Theropoda: Aves) from the late Mesozoic of Northeastern China. Bull. Am. Mus. Nat. Hist. 242, 1–89 (1999)

    Google Scholar 

  35. Hopson, J. A. in New Perspectives on the Origin and Early Evolution of Birds (eds Gauthier, J. & Gall, L. F.) 211–236 (Peabody Mus. Nat. Hist., Yale Univ., New Haven, 2001)

    Google Scholar 

  36. Zhou, Z.-H. & Farlow, J. O. in New Perspectives on the Origin and Early Evolution of Birds (eds Gauthier, J. & Gall, L. F.) 237–254 (Peabody Mus. Nat. Hist., Yale Univ., New Haven, 2001)

    Google Scholar 

  37. Sereno, P. & Rao, C. Early evolution of avian flight and perching: new evidence from the Early Cretaceous of China. Science 255, 845–848 (1992)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  38. Arnold, E. N. in New Perspectives on the Origin and Early Evolution of Birds (eds Gauthier, J. & Gall, L. F.) 195–210 (Peabody Mus. Nat. Hist., Yale Univ., New Haven, 2001)

    Google Scholar 

  39. Norberg, U. M. Evolution of vertebrate flight: an aerodynamic model for the transition from gliding to active flight. Am. Nat. 126, 303–327 (1985)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Norberg, U. M. in The Beginnings of Birds (eds Hecht, M. K., Ostrom, J. H., Viohl, G. & Wellnhofer, P.) 293–302 (Freunde des Jura-Museums Eichstatt, Eichstatt, 1985)

    Google Scholar 

  41. Norberg, U. M. Vertebrate Flight (Springer, Berlin, 1990)

    Book  Google Scholar 

  42. Rayner, J. M. V. in The Beginnings of Birds (eds Hecht, M. K., Ostrom, J. H., Viohl, G. & Wellnhofer, P.) 279–288 (Freunde des Jura-Museums Eichstatt, Eichstatt, 1985)

    Google Scholar 

  43. Rayner, J. M. V. in The Beginnings of Birds (eds Hecht, M. K., Ostrom, J. H., Viohl, G. & Wellnhofer, P.) 289–292 (Freunde des Jura-Museums Eichstatt, Eichstatt, 1985)

    Google Scholar 

  44. Bock, W. J. The arboreal origin of avian flight. Mem. Calif. Acad. Sci. 8, 57–72 (1986)

    Google Scholar 

  45. Rowe, T. et al. The Archaeoraptor forgery. Nature 410, 539–540 (2001)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  46. Speakman, J. R. & Thomson, S. C. Flight capabilities of Archaeopteryx. Nature 370, 524 (1994)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

We thank L. Witmer and A. Milner for their suggestions and comments, M. Norell, X.-J. Ni, J. Liu, J. Clarke and P. Sereno for discussions, Y.-L. Huo, Y.-T. Li and H.-J. Wang for preparing the specimens, R.-S. Li for drawings, and Z.-G. Sun and B. An for help with CT scanning. Thanks also go to members of the Liaoxi expedition team of the IVPP for fieldwork. This work was supported by grants from the National Natural Science Foundation of China, the National Geographic Society, Special Funds for Major State Basic Research Projects of China, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Xing Xu.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Xu, X., Zhou, Z., Wang, X. et al. Four-winged dinosaurs from China. Nature 421, 335–340 (2003). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature01342

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/nature01342

Further reading

Comments

By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.

Search

Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing