Beijing to Boston: Chatting About Yi qi, Part 3

In previous installments, my friend Corwin Sullivan of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) in Beijing, China and I covered the basics about everybody’s new favorite batwinged dino-pigeon Yi qi. In Part 1, we discussed what’s so special about it, and in Part 2, what we know about how it might have flown and why we don’t know more. We turn now to why it took so long for Yi to make it to the pages of Nature, what made China such an appealing place for Corwin the paleontologist to be (spoiler: there are a lot of cool fossils there), and—finally—how educators can bring Yi into their classrooms.

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SK: So according to what I’ve read, Yi was discovered in 2007 and you guys have been actively researching this critter since 2009! Why the long delay before we got to learn about it? What have you been doing all this time?

CS: The specimen was acquired by the Tianyu Museum in 2007, and may have been collected substantially earlier—I really don’t know. Once in the museum, however, it did languish for a while before Xu Xing and Zheng Xiaoting got around to working on it. This sort of situation is very common, partly because paleontological research can be a slow, painstaking process and partly because we paleontologists are busy academics with grant applications to write, papers to review, meetings to attend, graduate students to supervise, and often classes to teach. Getting one’s hands on an interesting specimen is just the first step in a process that can take years or even, in extreme cases, decades.

SK: So does this mean that you have other amazingly awesome things sitting around your lab, but it’ll be years before we hear about them?

CS: Yes. :-)

SK: What is it about China, anyway? Why are all these stunning fossils of weird and wonderful flying dinosaurs found in this country? Are they all being found in the same locality, or are they scattered about?

CS: The flying dinosaurs are coming from various localities in western Liaoning Province and adjacent regions—Yi qi is from a Jurassic site in Hebei Province that’s very close to the Liaoning border. This whole area is more or less in the part of northeast China that foreigners used to call Manchuria. The region is rich in shales, both Jurassic and Cretaceous, that were deposited in lakes under unusual conditions that turned out to be very conducive to exquisite fossil preservation. Most dinosaur fossils are incomplete, even fragmentary, and lack any traces of preserved soft tissue, but these Jurassic and Cretaceous lake deposits often yield complete skeletons accompanied by feathers and other soft structures. It was only in the 1990s that such specimens started to emerge, so the search for new species is ongoing and surprises are still turning up quite frequently.

SK:  Anything in particular you are looking for in China? And are there other interesting things that are being unearthed, or is it all dinobirds?

SK: Dinobirds get more than their share of attention from the press, but interesting things are being unearthed all the time. Just in the past couple of years, we’ve seen publications on several new fossils from the Daohugou Biota—the same Jurassic assemblage that produced Yi qi—that are shaking up traditional views of the evolution of the mammalian lineage during the Mesozoic. And then there’s Entelognathus, the Silurian fish from Yunnan Province that seems to imply placoderms are ancestral to the rest of us jawed vertebrates, and that pterosaur Ikrandraco with the insane mandibular crest… sometimes it seems like dinobirds are the least of it. As for what I’d like to find, I’m not fussy, but a scansoriopterygid preserved in a more three-dimensional way that would allow us to take a good look at its skeletal anatomy would be especially welcome. These northeast Chinese lake deposits are great for soft tissue preservation, but the actual skeletons tend to be a bit flattened and difficult to work with.

SK: How would you advise educators to use Yi in the classroom? Can any basic evolutionary principles or misconceptions be addressed using it?

CS: I hope that Yi qi will become established as a good case study in convergent evolution, basically meaning the independent evolution of similar features in different groups. Membranous wings supported in part by bony or cartilaginous rods have popped up in pterosaurs and in a few different groups of mammals, as I mentioned above, and now Yi qi provides a dinosaurian example of the same phenomenon. Mentioning this issue will also give teachers a good opportunity to remind their students that pterosaurs are not dinosaurs, which is one of those things that one can never say often enough.

SK: No kidding.

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As a postscript, Corwin and I got into a pretty heated discussion about what I perceived as some hinky language a scientist used in discussing Yi qi: “Close to the origin of birds [from dinosaurs]...many lineages tried in a different way to get into the air, but finally only one group succeeded.” I took issue with the use of “trying,” and Corwin admitted that it was “a bit Lamarckian” but ultimately defended it on the grounds that “[p]eople who have a basic grasp of evolutionary theory won’t be misled, and people who don’t will at least come away with an approximate understanding of the topic under discussion.” I admit that his response took me off guard and things got a little ALL-CAPSY on my end (if you can’t get all-capsy with your friends, with whom can you get all-capsy?) It has led to an ongoing back-and-forth about the role of scientists when talking to the media, the difference (and whether there is one) between being an academic and being an educator, and the perceived dichotomy between being engaging and being rigorous. If nothing else, it highlights for me the importance of working to improve science communication by engaging scientists and journalists—something NCSE hopes to do more of in the future.

Are you a teacher and want to tell us about an amazing free resource? Do you have an idea for a future Misconception Monday or other post? See some good or bad examples of science communication lately? Drop me an email or shoot me a tweet <at>keeps3.

Stephanie Keep
Short Bio

Stephanie Keep is the former Editor of Reports of the National Center for Science Education

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