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The Frightening Fossils: Behold the Dino-Bats!

Bats are an iconic staple of horror tropes. But did these menacing animals have dinosaur equivalents? And did these animals drink blood too?

Spooky season is upon us! To celebrate the most delightfully horrifying time of the year, Halloween themed articles will be released every Sunday on Max’s Blogosaurus for the rest of October. Will you be able to endure the Frightening Fossils?

When is a bat not a bat?

When it’s a dinosaur, perhaps?

The fascination we have with bats is well justified. They are one of the only animal families that have ever learned how to fly; they make up more than a quarter of all mammal species with over 1,400 species; and, most famously, have three species that drink blood. The last fact is what has ingrained them into our myths and fears, forever making the bat synonymous with the greatest figure in horror: Count Dracula. While bats didn’t evolve until after the non-avian dinosaurs went extinct, a strange family of dinosaurs managed to imitate them during the late Jurassic period of China. These dinosaurs were known as the scansoriopterygids, but for the sake of convenience and making sure your brain doesn’t malfunction trying to sound this one out, just call them the “Dino-Bats.”

Courtesy of Gabriel Ugueto

A Strange Family

Since their 2002 discovery, the dino-bats have represented one of the strangest dinosaur families. The first two genera, Epidexipteryx and Epidendrosaurus (I promise the names will get easier) were both hailed as small, tree-climbing carnivores. Each species was covered in primitive, fuzzy feathers, which are amongst the oldest known amongst dinosaurs. Far stranger was the families’ elongated third finger, so long that it was equivalent to half their total body length. Combined with disproportionately large eyes and teeth that stuck out of the jaw, you now have one odd family of dinosaurs. Yet, this view of an odd family would soon expand beyond anything paleontologists could have anticipated.

Courtesy of Emily Willoughby

In 2015, the discovery of a new member shifted paleontologists’ views on this family. Named Yi qi (pronounced ‘ee-chee,’) this new dinosaur had one striking feature on each of its arms: a skin membrane. The membrane would have connected the elongated third finger with Yi’s torso, forming the basis for a primitive wing. Rod-like structures, which were not found on any other dinosaurs, would have supported the membrane. Similar structures are found on gliding mammals like Flying Squirrels, seemingly confirming the presence of wings on Yi. No longer was the family just tree-dwellers; they were now the Dino-Bats (though it should be noted they still lived in trees.) The discovery of another genus in 2019 named Ambopteryx proved that the wings were spread across the family. With fossil sites in China continuing to reveal more strange species every year, the Dino-Bats may just have more in store for paleontologists.

Fly like Icarus? 

Like their modern equivalents, the Dino-Bats were adapted for life in the air. Despite this, studies undertaken on the wings of the Dino-Bats have revealed they weren’t all that good at it. For one, they were incapable of powered flight and would have been fully restricted to basic gliding. This prevented them from taking off at ground level, making them subject to potential danger should they ever depart from their tree-top environments. Additionally, their wings were inflexible and would have offered limited maneuverability, making flying a potentially tedious task. Their limited flying ability may explain why the family is restricted to such a small geographical range and time. In ecosystems populated with already advanced pterosaurs and early birds, the Dino-Bats were simply too primitive to make the cut. While they may have been evolutionary dead-ends, they still are a fascinating experiment in the history of the dinosaurs.

Courtesy of Chung-Tat Cheung,

The Million Dollar Question…

Were the Dino-Bats bloodsuckers? As we know, some of their modern ecological equivalents certainly are. So, did they enjoy blood too? I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it seems unlikely. While they did have elongated front teeth that extended from their jaws, they were more likely used to catch flies and beetle grub then they were to drink blood.

Having said this, I would love to see speculative art that depicts Dino-Bats snacking on a sauropod the way Vampire Bats attack animals like cow and deer. So please: if there are any Paleoartists reading this, give it a try.

References:

I do not take credit for any of the images found in this article.

Header courtesy of John Conway, whose art can be found at his website here.

Ambopteryx in flight courtesy of Gabriel Ugueto, art found here or at his website here

Tree-dwelling Epidexipteryx courtesy of Emily Willoughby, found at her twitter here.

Ambopteryx courtesy of Mr. Chung-Tat Cheung, found here

Vampire bat courtesy of Nicolas Reusens, found here

Black, Riley. “Newly Discovered Bat-like Dinosaur Reveals the Intricacies of Prehistoric Flight.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 8 May 2019, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/newly-discovered-bat-dinosaur-reveals-intricacies-prehistoric-flight-180972128/.

Dececchi, T. Alexander, et al. “Aerodynamics Show Membrane-Winged Theropods Were a Poor Gliding Dead-End.” IScience, vol. 23, no. 12, 2020, p. 101574., https://doi.org/10.1016/j.isci.2020.101574.

Naish, Darren, and Paul Barrett. Dinosaurs: How They Lived and Evolved. Published by the Natural History Museum, 2018.

Pickrell, John. Weird Dinosaurs: The Strange New Fossils Challenging Everything We Thought We Knew. Columbia University Press, 2017.

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