Ambopteryx – bird or bat-winged reptile?

Evidence that new fossil is more likely to be a bird



It’s a bird! It’s a bat! No – it’s Ambopteryx!

Figure 1. Artistic impression of Ambopteryx longibrachium.
Credit: Greshko, M. New species of bat-winged dinosaur discovered. National Geographic, May 8, 2019

Yet another new fossil species has been discovered in Liaoning province in China called Ambopteryx longibrachium. This term is a Greek-Latin hybrid meaning “both wings long arms”, referring to its prominent wings and long forelimbs. This sparrow-sized creature belonged to a family of allegedly therapod1 dinosaurs called Scansoriopterygidae (Latin-Greek for ‘climbing wings’), and ‘dated’ to 163 million years old. This would make it 13 million years older than Archaeopteryx lithographica, the oldest known bird according to the evolutionary timescale.

Researchers found a supposed styliform element2 among the hand bones which form the wings. In bats these are very fine, jointed bones, but in Ambopteryx they are claimed to be long, thick and unjointed. Furthermore, they also found what they believe is a brownish film on one wing, which they think is the remains of a membrane. Until now, membranous wings have only been known among pterosaurs and bats. The authors think that this different wing architecture happened near the split between Scansoriopterygidae and the dinosaur lineage thought to lead up to birds. They think both groups ‘experimented’ with different modes of flight, and that feathered wings ultimately led to flight.3 An evolutionary impression of Ambopteryx can be seen in Figure 1.

Problems with the evolutionary story

There are several points that should be considered when talking about the supposed evolution of membranous wings in reptiles. What is Ambopteryx?

First, membranous wings are very rare, and occur only in pterosaurs and bats. No intermediate forms have ever been found leading up to these organisms. No half-membranous wing has ever been found. Evolutionists explain only the existence of fully formed membranous wings, but their explanation as to how they arose in the first place is not convincing.

Second, if the evolution of membranous wings were so straightforward, then it is hard to understand why they didn’t evolve more times, since these kinds of wings make flight just as efficient as bird wings. For example, bat wings have even more joints in their hands than humans, giving them fine control during flight. Bats’ many-jointed wings provide for more lift, less drag, and more maneuverability.4

Figure 2. a. Photograph and b. schematic representation of Ambopteryx longibrachium.
Credit: Ref. 3

The presence of a possible styliform-like element (marked by 'se' in Figure 2b) could be of interest but needs more examination. This extended digit could be analogous to the middle finger of the aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascarensis), a Madagascan lemur, which it uses to find insects in trees, as the authors have suggested. However, in this author's opinion, it is possible that this styliform-like element does not serve the purpose of stretching out a membranous wing. The fact of the matter is that such a bone has never been found in a vertebrate wing which does this, either alive or extinct. In Pteranodon for example, no bones form part of the membranous wings except the front edge. In bats, the multi-jointed metacarpals (palm bones) take part in stretching out the membranous wing. In Ambopteryx, the styliform-like element is one long, thick and unjointed bone. This bone might be merely a displaced radius or ulna (the two forearm bones). This is quite possible because the Ambopteryx skeleton was found disjointed and messy. The styliform-like element is also present on only the right arm of the Ambopteryx skeleton, which raises the question as to why it is missing on the left arm.

It also remains to be seen as to whether the brownish film really is the remain of a membranous wing. Researchers have mistakenly believed organic remains to be feathers in certain species of dinosaurs.5 Furthermore, if the soft tissue is real, this would only be evidence that Ambopteryx cannot be millions of years old, since soft tissue cannot be preserved that long.

Although scansoriopterids are supposedly theropods, they differ from them in several ways. For example, they lack the perforated (open) acetabulum,6 which is characteristic of all dinosaurs. They also have an elongated outer finger, whereas the middle finger of theropods is elongated. They also have a reversed hallux (first toe), which would make Ambopteryx a perching bird. Ambopteryx also has longer arm lengths than theropods.7 Ambopteryx also has a pygostyle, a single structure formed by fused tail bones, which anchors tail feathers and muscles.


Genesis 1:21 describes the creation of flying creatures (not just birds, but also flying mammals and reptiles) on Day 5 of Creation Week: “So God created the great sea creatures and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.” On the other hand, God created land animals, including reptiles such as dinosaurs on Day 6 of Creation Week. Therefore, birds and dinosaurs are separate from one another, and are not related.

Overall, Ambopteryx appears to be a species of tree-climbing bird based on several structural elements—the long forelimbs, the fused tail bones, and the hip socket. This could well be due to a higher degree of bird variability before the Flood.

Lastly, a word of caution. While the evidence from this fossil may point in this direction, we must also mention that a number of dinosaur/bird fossil forgeries have come forth especially from the province of Liaoning, including the notorious Archaeoraptor hoax.8 Therefore, we encourage our readers to exercise caution when dealing with fossil birds from China. Xing Xu, one of the authors of this paper, himself pointed out in 2000 that there are “assembly line factories” from this location where they put together chimaeric fossils in order to increase their value. 9 “The fake fossil problem has become very, very serious,” with more than 80 percent of marine reptile specimens on display in Chinese museums estimated to have been “altered or artificially combined to varying degrees.”7

Far from refuting the Bible, new scientific discoveries can verify and fit into the Biblical narrative of the events described in the book of Genesis.

Published: 30 July 2019

References and notes

  1. Theropods are two-legged ‘reptile hipped’ dinosaurs of various sizes, such as Tyrannosaurus rex, many of which are carnivores—but not all. Return to text.
  2. A bone which juts off almost perpendicularly from the hand, and which stretches out the membranous wing in animals such as bats. Return to text.
  3. Wang, M., O’Connor, J.K., Xu, X., Zhou, Z., A new Jurassic scansoriopterygid and the loss of membranous wings in theropod dinosaurs, Nature 569:256–261, 2019 | doi:10.1038/s41586-019-1137-z. Return to text.
  4. Hedenström, A. and Johansson, L.C., Bat flight: aerodynamics, kinematics and flight morphology, J Exp Biol. 218(5):653–63, 2015 | doi:10.1242/jeb.031203. Return to text.
  5. Thomas, B. and Sarfati, J., Researchers remain divided over ‘feathered dinosaurs’, J. Creation 32(1):121–127, 2018. Return to text.
  6. The acetabulum is the socket of the hipbone into which the head of the thighbone fits. In dinosaurs, this an opening with three surrounding bones, whereas birds and other creatures have a closed, cup-shaped acetabulum. Return to text.
  7. Feduccia, A. Riddle of the Feathered Dragons–Hidden Birds of China, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2012. Return to text.
  8. Rowe, T., Ketcham, R.A., Denison, C., Colbert, M., Xu, X., Currie, P.J. Forensic palaeontology: The Archaeoraptor forgery, Nature. 410(6828):539-40, 2001. Return to text.
  9. Dalton, R. Chasing the dragons, Nature 406:930–932, 2000. Return to text.

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