Yi qi: The Dragon of the Jurassic

The Jurassic Dragon takes flight!
Image Credit: Emily Willoughby, https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Yi_qi_restoration.jpg

In a dense forest, full of hissing, rumbling and bellowing noises, a dragon perches on a branch. Using its sharp eyesight it locates its next meal; a large beetle crawling along a tree trunk 50 metres away. The dragon stretches its leathery wings and takes flight, swooping down silently with barely a flap towards its prey. However, just before the dragon can strike the beetle notices and unfurls its own wings in a desperate attempt to escape. But with a couple of quick flaps the dragon adjusts in mid-air and intercepts, snapping it out of the air with its toothy jaws. The beast lands and swallows the meal. But this is only a starter, and the little dragon surveys the forest again before moving on in search of the main course.

Believe it or not this really did occur in the Late Jurassic forests of China. But with one difference. The animal in question was not a mythological dragon, but a dinosaur named Yi qi.

The binomial name Yi qi, meaning “Strange Wing” in Chinese, is the shortest scientific name given to any dinosaur, and one of the shortest names of any animal living or extinct. It belonged to a family of theropod dinosaurs known as the Scansoriopterygidae (a real tongue twister of a name). Yi qi is one of only three known members of this group (the others being Epidexipteryx and Epidendrosaurus/Scansoriopteryx) and as a result relatively little is known about their evolutionary history and general lifestyle. The Scansoriopterygidae were part of a wider theropod order known as the paravians; which includes the dromaeosaurs (i.e. raptors) and all birds (that’s right ALL birds). However the Scansoriopterygidae seem (unless future discoveries say otherwise) to be an example of an evolutionary dead end as they are only known from sites from the Mid-Late Jurassic (and potentially Early Cretaceous) China and nowhere else.

Size comparison between Yi qi and a human being
Image Credit: Matthew Martyniuk, https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Yi_scale.png

Yi qi was roughly the size of a pigeon with toothed jaws, forward facing eyes, sharp claws, long thick tail feathers and simple filament feathers covering its body, head and upper arms. The fossilised feathers are so well preserved that even the melanosomes (the small organelles that give feathers and other biological structures colour) were clearly preserved. Examination of the shape of these melanosomes, and comparison with melanosomes in living birds, showed that Yi qi had a black/grey body with reds and yellow colours on its arms. This gave it a distinctive contrasting colour scheme with the red/yellow arms perhaps used for signalling or species recognition. So far from this description Yi qi sounds more like a bird than a dragon! However when palaeontologists examined its forearms they made an astonishing discovery. An elongated third finger extended from both its hands and a long rod like bone (known as a styliform) jutted out from its wrist. These supported a skin membrane, known as a patagia, connecting the ends of its elongated fingers to the end of the styliform. It’s theorized that this membrane would also have stretched from the end of the styliform to the body, giving Yi qi “bat-like” wings (though another competing theory is that Yi qi would have had skin membranes like those of a modern gliding tree frog). These unique wings give Yi qi and its close relatives an appearance unlike any dinosaur, bird or pterosaur, one that draws comparisons with a dragon (specifically a “wyvern”). Whether Yi qi would have used these wings for powered flight or gliding (like a flying squirrel) is unclear. However it may have employed a combination of the two; long distance gliding (or as Buzz Lightyear would say “falling with style!”) and powered flapping for initial take off and manoeuvring through the air. Yi qi’s discovery also shows that flight had evolved in dinosaurs on multiple occasions, with the bat winged Yi qi being only one such evolutionary experiment.

The one and only Yi qi fossil. Note the feather covering around its body and head, as well as the styliform on its elongated wrist.
Image Credit: Kumiko, https://www.flickr.com/photos/kmkmks/27011985534/

All we know about Yi qi so far comes from one remarkable fossil that was discovered in 2007 in the Hebei province of China. It was found in the Mid-Late Jurassic age Tiaojishan formation of rocks. This is important as a large proportion of feathered dinosaurs are known from the Early Cretaceous onwards (20-30 million years after Yi qi). Therefore its discovery shows that feathers were present on dinosaurs far earlier than initially thought, with some palaeontologists suggesting that they originated even earlier than Yi qi. After its discovery the fossil was studied by a team led by the eminent Palaeontologist Xu Xang, who has described and named a whole menagerie of Chinese dinosaurs (e.g. the feathered tyrannosaur Yutyrannus). Yi qi was revealed to the world in a paper released in 2015 and it’s strange, dragon like appearance meant that it, like many dinosaur discoveries from China in the last few decades, made headlines around the world.

Yi qi is one of the most unusual dinosaur discoveries of the last decade. It proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the world of palaeontology continues to unearth astounding discoveries. Discoveries that add more paint to the canvas that is the history of life on earth.

References/Further Reading

The original Xu et. al. 2015 paper describing Yi qi

Xu, X., Zheng, X., Sullivan, C. et al. A bizarre Jurassic maniraptoran theropod with preserved evidence of membranous wings. Nature 521, 70–73 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature14423

A blog (originally from tetrapod zoology) published in Scientific American by palaeontologist Darren Naish on Yi qi and theories on its lifestyle and features

Naish, Darren “Yi qi Is Neat but Might Not Have Been the Black Screaming Dino-Dragon of Death”. Scientific American, May. 5, 2015, blogs.scientificamerican.com/tetrapod-zoology/yi-qi-is-neat-but-might-not-have-been-the-black-screaming-dino-dragon-of-death/

A blog written by Nick Garland and published in Earth Archives on Yi qi

Garland, Nick “Meet Yi qi, the dinosaur with bat-like wings and feathers”. Earth Archives, 2015, eartharchives.org/articles/meet-yi-qi-the-dinosaur-with-bat-like-wings-and-feathers/

“Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty Gigantopithecus!”

Gigantopithecus as it may have appeared in life
Image Credit: Concavenator, https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gigantopithecus.png

If there is one creature that is frequently recycled in pop culture it is the giant ape. They recur over the decades because writers and directors can make them human enough that people can relate, but also fearsome enough to differentiate itself and be a scary threat. The most notorious example of this is King Kong, who first starred in a film in 1933 and has been reinvented on screen a staggering 3 times. He is one of the most famous large movie monsters of all time, tying only with Godzilla (whom Kong will battle on the silver screen in 2020). As well as seeing them in movies some people are convinced that large “ape-men” still exist in the wild. Sightings of animals such as Bigfoot and the Yeti, as well as “evidence” of hair and skin samples, have been reported for centuries. However the fossil record tells us that there were once indeed giant apes roaming the earth, as recently as 100,000 years ago!

The first fossils of this mysterious animal were discovered not during an excavation or stored in a museum, but in a market in Hong Kong. In 1935 A German palaeontologist named Ralph von Koenigswald was wandering through a Chinese market looking for weird curiosities such as “dragon bones”. Suddenly his eye was drawn to a molar tooth in one of the pharmacies. Von Koenigswald deduced that this tooth belonged to a species of primate, however this tooth was much bigger than any tooth belonging to a modern primate! Tracing the source of the tooth to a cave in Guangxi, South China, Von Koenigswald found more teeth and a jaw fragment. He named this giant ape Gigantopithecus blacki, (Greek for “Black’s giant ape”) after a colleague of his called Davidson Black. Since then surprisingly few further remains of Gigantopithecus have been found, with only a few more teeth and fragments of lower jaw collected from China, Vietnam and India. This could be due to the poor preservation potential of the areas that this animal lived in. This problem affects other prehistoric animals, and explains why we know some animals from very fragmented remains only. They have to be reconstructed based on what little we can infer from the remains, information from close relatives and more than a fair bit of educated guesswork!

A Cast of a Gigantopithecus lower jaw on display at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History in Cleveland, Ohio, USA. Jaws and teeth like these make up pretty much all of the known fossils of this giant ape.
Image Credit: James St. John, https://www.flickr.com/photos/jsjgeology/32409712905

However, despite the mysteriousness surrounding this animal, palaeontologists have been able to estimate that Gigantopithecus blacki stood 3 metres tall and weighed around half a ton; meaning that it would easily tower over a person and would have been the largest and most physically powerful primate that has ever lived. This size varied between genders, with males being much larger than females (this is known as “sexual dimorphism”). Like Orangutans Gigantopithecus is thought to have sported a long red/ginger coloured coat of hair, which together with its size would have made it a distinguishable sight in the tropical forests of South East Asia. At first glance this description may sound eerily similar to the popular depiction of “The Abominable Snowman”. However before anybody gets any ideas, Gigantopithecus would not explain the myth of the Yeti! For one thing it probably was not a bipedal walker, instead walking on its knuckles like a gorilla. Also its geographical range didn’t stretch to the Himalayas, where most yeti sightings have traditionally been located. That being said, it is plausible that fossil remains of Gigantopithecus collected over the centuries by locals may have been mistaken for remains of a Yeti. Despite its large size and ferocious canines, it is thought that Gigantopithecus would have had a diet consisting of fruit, leaves, roots and even bamboo, using its large molars to crunch through the plant matter. Its size would have given it protection against the main predators that inhabited the forests it lived in, such as tigers and alligators. The similarities to Orangutans isn’t just superficial however. A study published in November 2019 (by Welker et. al.) has shown that modern Orangutans and Gigantopithecus share a close common ancestor. By extracting and studying small fragments of protein from fossils of Gigantopithecus teeth the researchers showed that the two species split from a common ancestor around 10-12 million years ago. This was at a time when the great apes were undergoing an increase in diversity, evolving into the precursors of species alive today (including the early ape-like ancestors of humans).

A size comparison between Gigantopithecus blacki (left), the smaller Gigantopithecus giganteus (right) and an adult human (centre)
Image Credit: Discott, https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gigantopithecus_v_human_v1.svg

Gigantopithecus evolved around 6 million years ago and was a highly successful species in its time. However despite its longevity it would eventually succumb to extinction, the last Gigantopithecus dying out 100,000 years ago. One reason for its extinction is thought to have been the loss of its tropical forest habitat due to global cooling. With the reduction of forest went the loss of it’s mainly fruit diet. As a result Gigantopithecus could not find enough food to support its huge size. However before it disappeared Gigantopithecus did manage to come into contact with our early human ancestors, in particular the early hominid Homo erectus, who had just spread into Asia at the time. Whether these early human ancestors would have hunted Gigantopithecus is a matter of debate, however a 3 metre tall bad tempered great ape would have certainly posed a massive threat to any human ancestor brave enough to take it on!

So Gigantopithecus managed to inspire awe in our early human ancestors, as giant apes do in ourselves today. To finish I’ll leave you with one more fun fact about this ape. The character of King Louie in the 2016 live action film “The Jungle Book” is a self-confessed Gigantopithecus!

References/Further Reading

Welker et. al. 2019 paper on Gigantopithecus ancestry

Welker, F., Ramos-Madrigal, J., Kuhlwilm, M. et al. Enamel proteome shows that Gigantopithecus was an early diverging pongine. Nature 576, 262–265 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-019-1728-8

Bocherens et. al. 2017 paper on how Gigantopithecus’ size may have contributed to its extinction

Bocherens, H., et al. (2017). “Flexibility of diet and habitat in Pleistocene South Asian mammals: Implications for the fate of the giant fossil ape Gigantopithecus.” Quaternary International 434: 148-155.

Another paper, Zhang & Harrison 2017, revisiting Gigantopithecus

Zhang, Y., Harrison, T., Gigantopithecus blacki: a giant ape from the Pleistocene of Asia revisited. American journal of physical anthropology, 162 Suppl 63, 153-177 (2017). doi: 10.1002/ajpa.23150.