Artist's representation of Archaeopteryx in flight based on a new study in Nature Communications.
Jana Růžičková

"I can fly!"

A study finally gives the late-Jurassic dinosaur Archaeopteryx its wings, determining the beast was capable of powered flight.

For decades, paleontologists debated whether Archaeopteryx used its wings for active flight or passive gliding. Using new, powerful, state-of-the-art X-ray technology, scientists determined the wing bones of Archaeopteryx matched modern birds that flap their wings to fly short distances or in bursts.

The dinosaur lived roughly 150 million years ago in what's now southern Germany. It was about the size of a crow.

In terms of flight, the pheasant most closely matches this dinosaur, the study suggests. The dinosaur may have occasionally flown to cross barriers or dodge predators, but wasn't able to soar to great heights, such as many birds of prey and some seabirds do today, said Emmanuel de Margerie, of Sorbonne University in France.

A specimen of the transitional bird Archaeopteryx. It preserves a partial skull (top left), shoulder girdle and both wings slightly raised up (most left to center left), the ribcage (center), and the pelvic girdle and both legs in a “cycling” posture (right); all connected by the vertebral column from the neck (top left, under the skull) to the tip of the tail (most right).
ESRF/Pascal Goetgheluck

The species is now classified as the oldest free-flying dinosaur. 

Scanning data unexpectedly revealed the wing bones of Archaeopteryx shared important adaptations with those of modern flying birds. 

The sensitivity of X-ray imaging techniques allows virtual 3-D reconstructions of extraordinary quality, said study co-author Paul Tafforeau, a scientist at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in France.

Steve Brusatte, of the University of Edinburgh, who was not connected with the study, told the BBC that this was the best evidence yet that the animal was capable of powered flight.

"It's case-closed now," he said. "Archaeopteryx was capable of at least short bursts of powered flight." 

The study was published Tuesday in the peer-reviewed British journal Nature Communications.