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Researchers say first flying reptile had unusual wing design

March 6, 1997

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Researchers studying the 250-million-year-old fossil of a flying lizard said it had a wing structure unlike any other known in nature.

In a study to be published Friday in the journal Science, German and Canadian researchers say the wings of a lizard known as Coelurosauravus jaekeli, the first known reptile to fly, consisted of a membrane stretched between hollow rods that grew out from the skin on its sides.

The wings enabled the lizard to glide from place to place after a running or falling start, the study suggests.

Unlike other winged creatures, the ancient and extinct lizard had wings connected only to the skin structure, the scientists said. Bones in the wings of birds and bats, for example, are converted forearms.

``Coelurosauravus is totally bizarre because in every other animal that flies, wing support draws on the normal skeleton,″ said Hans-Dieter Sues of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, a co-author of the study. The other authors are Eberhard Frey and Wolfgang Munk of the State Museum of Natural History in Karlsruhe, Germany.

The researchers studied the winged lizard using well-preserved fossils from Germany and England. The lizard is thought to have lived about 250 million years ago, before the era of dinosaurs.

Sues said in Science that an examination of well-preserved fossils from the flying lizard show that its wings opened like a Japanese fan. The membrane stretched across hollow bony rods that grew out from the below the shoulder of each foreleg.

The foot-long lizard probably was able to glide for several tens of yards on the curved wings, said Sues. A 6-inch tail could have helped to stabilize the flight, he said.

Robert Carroll, a paleontologist at McGill University in Montreal, said the study proves that the lizard evolved a wing structure ``in a completely unique way.″

``This shows how early flight, even if not active flapping flight, was achieved by vertebrates,″ Carroll said in a Science commentary.

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