for National Geographic News
By literally shining new light on a Chinese pterosaur fossil, researchers have found that the membranes in the creature's wings contain a complex pattern of fibers not found in any living animal.
The membrane structure may have given some pterosaur species better control when they took to the skies, a new study says.
The fibers "would have made it easier to make subtle adjustments of the wing membrane when flying, perhaps giving them better flight capability," said study co-author Alexander Kellner, a paleontologist at Brazil's Museu Nacional (National Museum) in Rio de Janeiro.
The well-preserved fossil also included hairlike fibers quite different from the hair on modern mammals.
Similar fibers had been found on pterosaurs before, but researchers had wondered if they were simply products of tissue decay.
The newly examined pterosaur has the hairlike fibers all over its body and part of its wings. This suggests that the fibers were a covering that may have helped the pterosaurs control their body temperatures, Kellner said.
Soft Tissue and Stone
The fossil pterosaur, Jeholopterus ninchengensis, was discovered in Inner Mongolia in 2000 in a slab of shale loaded with ancient crustaceans and ash.
"This activity might be one of the reasons we find so many fossils in this area," Kellner noted. "The volcanoes would poison the air, and a large number of animals would die."
J. ninchengensis had a broad skull with tiny, peg-like teeth, which suggest the pterosaur fed on insects, he added.
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