Scientists are one step closer to figuring out what dinosaurs actually looked like—and they’re doing it by pointing laser beams at dinosaur fossils to show previously unknown features and details, including the actual fleshy outlines of prehistoric creatures.
In a new study, researchers focused the technique on the Anchiornis, a small feathered dinosaur that lived in the late Jurassic period.
Due to the animal’s drumstick-shaped legs and bird-like arms, revealed by the lasers, researchers think the Anchiornis might have been able to fly. The discovery offers another link in how modern-day birds may have evolved from their predecessors, according to the study published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications.
The Anchiornis, whose name means “near bird,” was the size of a raven and lived about a 160 million years ago. By laser-scanning nine of the Anchiornis‘s fossil fragments, scientists found their bodies showed remarkable similarities to modern birds.
“Anchiornis is especially suited for this study, because its contribution to understanding avian and flight origins has not been fully realized,” the team wrote in the paper.
Researchers also found that the Anchiornis had arms with patagia, a membrane that covers a limb and forms a wing—as with bats—that is necessary for gliding or flying.
“What our work does underscore is the broad extent to which bird-like dinosaurs were experimenting with their anatomy and functional capabilities before we had the first unequivocal gliding and flying birds,” Michael Pittman, the study’s lead researcher and a paleontologist at the University of Hong Kong, told National Geographic.