The oldest known flying vertebrate glided on a bizarre pair of wings, according to a study of exquisitely preserved fossils published in tomorrow's issue of Science.* All other known flying animals, such as gliding lizards and birds and bats, have wings adapted from ribs or forelimbs. But those of 250-million-year-old Coelurosauravus jaekeli were supported by new bones that formed directly in the skin
That makes this odd reptile an unusual evolutionary example. "We typically think of evolution as taking an existing structure and making some new function of it, but this animal has taken the capacity to produce bone and elaborated it in a completely new way," says vertebrate paleontologist Robert Carroll of McGill University in Montreal, who in the late 1970s was the first paleontologist to recognize that C. jaekeli could actually fly.
Coelurosauravus's wings were supported by new bones that formed in the skin, rather than by modifications of existing bones.
Carroll had thought that the wing rods were extension of the reptile's ribs. But Hans-Dieter Sues of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and his colleagues Eberhard Frey and Wolfgang Munk of the State Museum of Natural History in Karlsruhe, Germany, were able to study new and more complete specimens collected by amateur fossil hunters. They concluded instead that the bundles of bony rods formed in the skin and opened like an old Japanese fan, radiating from the shoulder area. When spread, the bundles formed two curved wings that could carry this precocious flyer tens of meters.
Carroll now agrees with their interpretation. "The new German material is good enough that it should settle most of the arguments," he says. The latest work relied on the efforts of amateur collectors who spend hours in abandoned German copper mines every weekend--and allow researchers to study their specimens, says Sues: "Paleontology, unlike particle physics, is something an amateur can make important contributions to."