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On Anchiornis’ flight capacities

January 25, 2013
Achiornis by Vasika Yasanjith Udurawane. While it's unlikely that Anchiornis raised it's forelimbs that high, morphological studies on alligators, as well as the numerous critiques to Senter's works, show that maniraptors could probably raise their forelimbs somewhat higher than previously thought.

Achiornis by Vasika Yasanjith Udurawane. While it’s unlikely that Anchiornis raised it’s forelimbs that high, morphological studies on alligators, as well as the numerous critiques to Senter’s works, show that maniraptors could probably raise their forelimbs somewhat higher than previously thought.

Recently, some people on Talk Rational have been having a very …. interesting discussion about Anchiornis‘ aerodynamic capacities (mostly because of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named’s obsession in twisting reality to support birds being derived pterosaurs).

Previously, I’ve already discussed possible flight adaptations in Anchiornis (I do not need to post said links because you can seem them in the discussion). Namely, I argued that the unusual wing feather arrangement might be indicative of an early attempt at lift-generating wings before the evolution of asymmetrical feathers, and that the animal seems far too unsuited to both climbing and running to be anything other than a flyer/glider.

Since then, however, there has been some changes. Most significant is Longrich’s paper on primitive avian wings, which seems to suggest that Anchiornis and Archaeopteryx were less efficient at aerial movement than derived birds and Microraptor.

These are my two-cents on the matter.

On Longrich’s paper

Diagram depicting the wings of Anchiornis, Archaeopteryx and Confuciusornis.

Diagram depicting the wings of Anchiornis, Archaeopteryx and Confuciusornis.

This is not the first time it has been suggested that early birds weren’t as good flyers as ornithurines. For instance, see Dareth Dyke’s paper stating that the vanes of Confuciusornis‘ flight feathers were too weak to support the bird in the air (spoilers: it’s now considered to be crap)., and the many papers describing how Archaeopteryx supposedly could not fly because of the lack of certain adaptations now thought to simply not be present due to different flight muscle configurations. It’s like these workers have a fetish for stating early birds could not fly in spite of the overwhalming about of morphological evidence against that.

The Longrich paper, I’m afraid, is another one to be debunked. If you want a less biased source on the matter, see the following:

The basic gist is that it fails to adress post-mortem preservation issues, that it’s simply too incoherent, that modern birds have similar arrangements, and that it may suffer from the “David Peters syndrome”, i.e. basically imagining things.

Thus, while it’s almost certain that early paravian wings weren’t as suited for powered flight, the paper fails to depict a sincere anatomical analysis. If you’re going to take it seriously, you’re an hypocrite for not seeing the genius that David Peters is.

I almost vomited while typing that.

Eosinopteryx and actual terrestriality

Eosinopteryx, another small, primitive troodontid. Unlike Anchiornis, it has reduced flight feathers, which seem to translate to a genuinely cursorial lifestyle

Eosinopteryx, another small, primitive troodontid. Unlike Anchiornis, it has reduced flight feathers, which seem to translate to a genuinely cursorial lifestyle.

So, with the Longrich silliness out of the way, we get back to stage one. Anchiornis is basically a quail-sized theropod that is appearently poorly adapted to climbing, cannot run very well due to the ginormous hindwings, and unlike Archaeopteryx it lived in an environment filled with terrestrial predators and mammalian competitors. Basically, if it could not fly out of danger and competition, it was doomed, unless it was extremely toxic or something.

Anchiornis also co-existed with another troodontid, the newly discovered Eosinopteryx. This animal differs from Anchiornis in that it has virtually no hindwings or tail feathers, and that it’s forelimb feathers are reduced somewhat. This animal was thus clearly terrestrial, either too primitive for aerial locomotion or having secondarily lost those traits as it became terrestrial. It was more suited than Anchiornis for a fully grounded life, and unless Anchiornis had some bizarre advantage, logic dictates that animals like Eosinopteryx would replaced critters like Anchiornis.

That said, conclusions like these are very hasty. If Anchiornis was volant, it should have features indicative of that.

First aeronaut pioneer?

Once more, the gliding model for four-winged dinosaurs. As you can see, merely raising the hindlimbs does wonders for life generation.

Once more, the gliding model for four-winged dinosaurs. As you can see, merely raising the hindlimbs does wonders for life generation. As a plus side, it also renders the hindlimbs extra life generating surfaces, thus the extra weight of the hindlimbs is not as detrimental to the animal as in modern birds.

Compared to Microraptor and Archaeopteryx, Anchiornis seems defenitely less adapted for flight. It has symmetrical feathers and it lacks tail rods, both adaptations closely correlated with flight in non-avian dinosaurs.

That said, we do now what it did had, and that would be the long hindlimbs. Both Anchiornis and Microraptor share long metatarsals and lower leg bones, both adaptations seen in cursorial animals. It’s well established that such hindlimbs seem paradoxical, as the long hindwing feathers would almost certainly get in the way of running. However, such long hindlimbs would almost certainly facilitate hopping, and thus, much like modern small terrestrial birds, these dinosaurs could possibly launch themselves quickly into the air. Furthermore, unlike ground birds, Anchiornis had hindwings, which would increase the life generating area and render the heavy hindlimbs less detrimental to flight.

Previously, terrestrial launching had been shut down in non-avian maniraptors due to the “fact” that they could not raise their forelimbs above the shoulder. Thankfully, these assertions are now considered false, and they furthermore also solve the other problem, that non-ornithurine paravians had inefficient wing musculature. Little has been described about Anchiornis‘ musculature, but Microraptor has well preserved deltoideus complexes, which means bat-like wing strokes were possible.

With symmetrical wing feathers and a tail without tail rods, Anchiornis was defenitely nowhere as aerial as Microraptor. However, it seems perfectly capable for quick take offs and parachuting, which is certainly far more than utter flightlessness. Galliforme style quick launchings followed by extensive parachuting seem to be the best model for it’s aerial locomotion


It seems therefore that Anchiornis was at least capable of quick launching and subsequent gliding, perhaps like a terrestrial version of the quick vaulting displayed by Pantodon and gasteropelecid hatchetfish.

Modern Anchiornis

Modern Anchiornis.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. January 26, 2013 9:51 am

    Very interesting post, and thanks fo linking me 😉

    • January 26, 2013 11:54 am

      You’re welcome 🙂

      • January 26, 2013 1:33 pm

        🙂 . However I must remind that the intent of that old post of mine is just to show that the Longrich’s wing diagram is atrocious. I’m not totally against the multi-coverts restorations on these little dinosaurs (even if I’m still a bit sceptical); an undescribed Anchiornis specimen SEEMS to enforce this theory ( Maybe Longrich is right, maybe he’s not. I just think that he didn’t do the study in the right way.
        I’d need the full article to finally say a more decent opinion.
        The thing is, I just wanted to warn you that I could still be wrong.

        Still, I truly appreciate that mention 😉

      • January 26, 2013 1:46 pm

        I know, but frankly even if he’s right, he didn’t do a decent aerodynamics examination,and his statements about flight being impossible seem rather hasty when he considers flapping possible.

  2. January 26, 2013 2:45 pm

    Man Faa if you were this respectful of positions you don’;t agree with more often you would never have been banned from the speculative evolution forums 😦

    • January 26, 2013 2:50 pm

      I hate masks. I’d rather be honest and banned than to be fake.

      • January 27, 2013 7:03 pm

        You don’t have to lie to people, just show some restraint.

        Don’t take me the wrong way. I fucking hate masks. However the more I think about it, the more I feel like some of my interactions with you have been just that. A mask. Now I truly do admire you man, but I feel your far to forceful with your opinions on others. Its one thing if your dealing with idiots like creationists; idiots who deny proven facts don’t deserve respect. Its another when your debating with someone like John K Patterson who, while clearly does not know too much about feathered dinosaurs, isn’t denying them and his point about dinosaurs in fiction is a legitimate opinion.

        My point is this: avoid name calling unless the person on the other end TRULY deserves it. Otherwise you risk becoming just as bad as the creotards and homophobes you fight against.

    • January 27, 2013 7:44 pm

      I know where you’re coming from, and I indeed could be more sophisticated than direct name calling.

      However, since rational discourse doesn’t truly work and I cannot be apathetic towards what I see as harmful, bitching is the only way.

      • January 28, 2013 5:37 pm

        Why are you so adamant about changing other peoples minds?

      • January 29, 2013 12:31 am

        I guess it’s because it’s the only way I can make the world a better place.

  3. Vasika Udurawane permalink
    May 22, 2013 4:32 pm

    Thanks for the picture as reference, I appreciate it 🙂

    • May 23, 2013 1:06 pm

      You’re welcome 🙂

      • April 13, 2016 4:10 am


        In spite of the F words I think you have a good case. One does not know but should consider the habitat that this creature lived in. Short burst of flight of only a couple of meters may have been enough to get into concealing bushes. Try chasing a Sharp-tailed Grouse and you will quickly understand what I am saying. The grouse that I chased did not even fly but still managed to completely disappear. But what do I know, I’m just a man of 75 years who does not have a PHD in anything. I’m very up on my ornithology however.

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