The dragon of the Jurassic! A mysterious creature that many portray as a monstrous frankenstein of bat and bird features…may actually not look so strange afterall.
This handsome little fellow was only about the size of a pigeon or perhaps a crow. The one and only fossil preserves beautiful details about its feathers, the skin membrane between a few fingers, and even the structures that hint at color. But fossils like these can often lead to even more questions than one started with! Let’s take a moment to unpack what I mean…
Let’s start with what we know.
Yi Qi (Eee-chee) is Chinese for “strange wing”, and was discovered in the Tiaojishan Formation of Hebei, China. Formations are like a snapshot into a specific place and time in Earth’s history, and this particular area has two formations right on top of each other, and there seems to be a bit of controversy over which fossils come from which layer, and exactly how old those layers are. The general consensus seems to be that the layers Yi Qi was buried in are from the Middle Jurassic.
The fossil is completely flat, and though everything is mostly situated where you might expect it to be (an articulated fossil), it’s still rather incomplete. The lower half of the body is mostly missing. Yi Qi is from a group of dinosaurs called scansoriopterygids (say that five times fast), which are generally considered small, very weird birdy things that may be somewhat related to much larger birdy things called oviraptorasaurs. Oviraptorasaurs are often portrayed as large, naked or nearly naked turkey/ostrich things with helmeted heads, usually running off with someone else’s eggs, or cracking into an egg with their stout beaks. You may be familiar with the meme, and perhaps also familiar with the equally common meme of an oviraptor sitting in its nest like an oversized chicken.
Speaking of chickens, Yi Qi has a beautiful variation in its feathers, though they are not the same structure. Perhaps you’ve seen a feather on the ground, or a feather quill pen. There is a single, hard quill from which thin, soft filaments sprout all along its length on both sides into a vaguely leaf-like shape. If it looks a bit disheveled, you can run your fingers down the length of the feather, and the tips of each filament will hook into place almost like a zipper. This leaves a nice smooth edge.
The feathers of Yi Qi are more like a paintbrush. A strong central quill, but the filaments spout off the end of the quill instead of along the sides. So these feathers may have appeared a little like fur in life. The feathers began almost at the tip of the snout, formed a thick coat around the head and neck, and grew longer and denser further down the body. The longest feathers grew along the top of the arm and the shin bones. The tail feathers are speculative, and based on the unusual tail of a close relative. Each of the four “feathers” is a structure more like a ribbon. I imagine it may have been similar to the rigid feathers of a few birds of paradise, that might have looked more like solid ribbons of plastic, or like thin sheets of keratin, than a true feather.
On many parts of the body were preserved melanosomes, which can be viewed under a microscope and help to guess at color. Most areas tested showed the possibility of black pigmentation, while spots on the head and wings appeared to be more red or yellow in hue. The problem with these melanosomes is that there is no guarantee for color. For example, what appears to be a black feather could have any number of structural differences that to our human eyes look like blue, green, purple, or red iridescence. The melanosomes that suggest the lighter color could be yellow, brown, red, or anything in between. Plus there are plenty of brown feathers with structural colors as well, such as in a peacock or a mallard duck.
Not to mention all the things we don’t know! What if this particular individual was an oddity? Albino, or similar morphs that are predominantly red or black. What if the specks we selected for testing are the specks of that color, while the rest of the body is mostly a different color? Is this a color pattern for males vs. females, and is it every day plumage or breeding plumage? Perhaps seasonal plumage? Perhaps this adult was relatively young and not fully into its “grown up” feathers yet, and so an odd mixture of juvenile vs. adult plumage? There are so many questions!
This leads us to the greatest mystery around this critter. The wings. The fossil of Yi Qi preserves some small amount of membrane between the fingers, but what’s really amazing is that extra bone jutting out from the wrist! This unusual bone is called a styliform, and is present in modern flying squirrels (though theirs is much smaller). This heavily implies a membrane used for gliding instead of feathers.
Why glide instead of fly? The bones don’t look like they have the structure for muscles strong enough for powered flight. Gliding is still a very useful thing for a small animal, especially one that is often climbing up into trees and wants to save a little energy traveling between them, as is common for all sorts of “jungle” dwellers like frogs, lizards, snakes, and small mammals. No one knows what shape this membrane had for Yi Qi, so artists usually look at pterosaurs, bats, and flying squirrels for inspiration. Many artists reconstruct this membrane as pure skin, like a bat, but I’ve chosen to cover the wing membrane in short fuzz, more like a flying squirrel.
I’ve reconstructed this critter with the hypothesis of being a partial ground dwelling creature, with the ability to climb up trees in its forest home to roost or escape ground predators (maybe find a few tasty treats). Once up there, maybe he needs a quick way to escape from the cat analogs of the time, and so has some really nifty gliding gear.
I imagine he spends a good deal of time on the ground, and the varying shades of red and brown help him disappear in the undergrowth, especially the patches of black and iridescent green on his back and head. Why do his teeth stick out in an overbite? What else aside from gliding can he use his wings? So many questions, but that’s what’s so fascinating about them!
The holidays are fast approaching around the corner, and it’s that time of year that I take a step back and focus on family, reevaluate where I’m at with all my creative endeavors, and recharge for the next year.
I hope you have a wonderful holiday season! I’ll post my little Season’s Greetings sometime between Christmas and New Years, but you won’t see much of me until February 1st, hopefully starting the new year strong with a new list of goals. 🙂
Thank you so much for taking a little time out of your day to join me here. I hope I can share a little joy and prehistoric cuteness to brighten your day. 🙂