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What are the origins of flight? It’s one of evolution’s greatest challenges. All flying creatures seem perfectly designed to fly, making such a creation seem nothing short of purposeful, and absolutely not random.

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Now, a foot-high red-crested dinosaur from the Late Jurassic era, Anchiornis, may hold the answers.

Scientists from the University of Hong Kong used high-powered lasers to light up previously invisible soft tissues of the dinosaur. Such newly exposed details provide much-needed insight into the creature’s true, and oddly avian, dimensions.

The study reveals that Anchiornis highly resembled a bird, with drumstick-shaped legs and long forearms connected by a layer of skin called the patagium. The creature also had a thin tail and scaly footpads like those of a chicken. The new details support accumulating evidence that many dinosaurs had bird-like traits as far back as 160 million years ago.

Anchiornis was originally described as a bird,” explains study coauthor Michael Pittman, a paleontologist at the University of Hong Kong. “But since then, different authors have provided evidence to [either] support its identity as an early bird or as a bird-like troodontid dinosaur.”

Pittman notes that “the best way to refer to Anchiornis is as a basal paravian, an early member of the group of dinosaurs that includes birds and the bird-like dinosaurs that share their closest common ancestor with birds.”

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The first Anchiornis fossils surfaced in northeastern China in 2009, revealing the creature’s avian attributes. “The detail was so well lit that we could see the texture of the skin,” says Pittman.

Paleontology is a mysterious field of science. Scientists dig up skeletons that are typically never complete, since soft tissues such as organs, muscles, or skin rarely survive. And should they actually make their way into the present, they’re invisible to the naked eye.

But the laser-simulated fluorescence technique offers scientists a chance to analyze this once-imperceptible detail. By bouncing wavelengths of light at a fossil sample in a dark room, the researchers were able to observe the mysterious features that revealed more information on how Anchiornis attempted, or possibly achieved, aerodynamic flight 160 million years ago.

John Hutchinson, a professor of evolutionary biomechanics at the Royal Veterinary College at the University of London, says the technique “is part of a flurry of tools emerging that help us to understand the evolution of soft tissues along extinct lineages.”

Hutchinson studies how dinosaurs move, and therefore was thrilled that the study revealed such  “beautiful anatomy” and “stunning preservation.”

“I think their findings mainly add detail to our understanding of body shape, reinforcing prior conclusions, and especially refine understanding of the shape of the arms,” he says.

 Though it’s possible Anchiornis didn’t necessarily fly, since even some modern birds with wing folds don’t, the research adds important insight into our understanding of the origination of birds.

“What our work does underscore,” Pittman says, “is the broad extent to which bird-like dinosaurs were experimenting with their anatomy and functional capabilities before we had the first unequivocal gliding and flying birds.”

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