Mainewhile: A magical meeting of science and fiction

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There I was, quietly sipping my morning coffee (propped up in bed no less, my Mother’s Day treat) when I came across a news post that made my heart skip a beat. The headline read simply, “Another Bat-Winged Dinosaur Has Been Found.”

Yeah, that’s right. Another. Bat-Winged. Dinosaur.

People, we have a word for this type of creature, dinosaurs with bat wings, and that word is “dragon.”

The article, written by one Ed Yong and dated May 8, was published by The Atlantic. Setting aside my immense and immediate jealousy of Ed Yong, who gets to break stories such as this, I delved into the details. Spoiler alert: Scientists think that given the structure of the wrist joint and connecting bones, this creature did not so much fly, like birds or dragons, but glide like, well, “modern-day flying squirrels.”

But I’m not sure that’s really the analogy I want to hold in my mind’s eye. After all, dragons have their dignity.

Mind you, from what we know, “Ambopteryx longibranchium, from the Latin for ‘both wings, long upper arm,’” was not a success. Feathered wings, not the leathery ones, were what worked for the dinos. Scientists think this was sort of an offshoot, an evolutionary “try it,” that didn’t really pan out. I love that. I love that nature was busy fiddling around, experimenting. It is how all learning happens. You try, you see, you adjust.

Beautifully preserved, this little skeleton fills a slot in the scientific record and bridges a gap in our knowledge. For me, it bridges a gap in my psyche, too.

I am a science geek. I love facts about how the world works. I have been fully obsessed with the newly released image of the black hole, and I can get lost for hours musing on ocean currents or molten rock. I love how one bit of knowledge can lead to a new spark of an idea, which leads to new knowledge.

That said, I spent far more time thinking about tesseracts and exploring the lands of Narnia and Middle Earth than I did being fully present in the quiet little town where I grew up. These are not contradictory things to me. Imagination fuels science, and facts give substance to fancy.

Dragons loomed large in my imagination (after all, my family is Welsh, there’s a dragon on the actual flag), although I never liked stories where they were slain. I preferred to think of them as potential pets, so it is easy to see how this story would captivate me. Just as the very real oceanic narwhal fans the flame of my 9-year-old self’s belief in the unicorn, so too does ambopteryx kindle my dragon dreams.

Now, I realize this fossil, this amazing, perfect, extraordinary fossil, is not the same thing as the lordly fire-breathing creature of lore. For one thing, it seems to have been about the size of a sparrow. And then there’s the whole “flying squirrel” comparison. But isn’t it just amazing in and of itself that here we have a nearly perfectly preserved skeleton of a tiny, bat-winged dinosaur, an actual creature that existed – and glided – many millennia ago?

Sometimes, factual, logical science provides the perfect launch for magical, fantastical thinking.

Brunswick resident Heather D. Martin wants to know what’s on your mind; email her at heather@heatherdmartin.com.

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