Photo in the News: Ancient Lizard Glided Using Its Ribs

Gliding fossil lizard images
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March 20, 2007—Bar food connoisseurs may now have a new mascot—an animal with wings made out of its ribs.

Researchers from China uncovered remarkably preserved remains of the unique creature—an ancient lizard that glided through the air on membranes supported by eight elongated ribs.

Named Xianglong zhaoi, the bizarre animal, as seen in this artist's recreation, lived in treetops during the early Cretaceous period, which began about 144 million years ago.

The animal's 6.1-inch-long (15.5-centimeter-long) skeleton (inset) was found in Liaoning province in northeastern China—complete with superbly preserved imprints of its patagium, or wing membranes. Fully extended, the patagium would have stretched about 4.5 inches (11 centimeters) across.

The animal might also have been surprisingly agile in the air, as its wing features "are close to those in fast-flying birds with great maneuverability," write the researchers in this week's edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academies of Science. (Related: "Dino-Era Bird Flew With Four Wings, Study Says" [September 28, 2006].)

While many gliding creatures are known—including flying squirrels, frogs, and lemurs—the new creature represents the only gliding fossil lizard ever found, the researchers add.

Only two other creatures are known to use their ribs in a similar fashion—living lizards of the genus Draco in Southeast Asia and a lizardlike fossil creature from the late Triassic period, about 200 million years ago.

What's remarkable, the scientists say, is that all of these creatures developed their gliding abilities independently—a startling example of nature developing the same useful ability in unrelated species.

—Aalok Mehta

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