Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Dinosaurs Take Flight

A Deep Time Lineages Activity

Activity Description


Students examine fossil evidence from the bird/dinosaur lineage and hypothesize where along that lineage flight evolved.

  • Designed for group of up to 5 students each
  • Grades 3-8 or Ages 8-14
  • Activity should take 20 minutes to complete


Students work together using fossil evidence to explore how features of powered flight evolved over time. They make observations of features across 5 different dinosaurs/birds and use those observations to make hypotheses about where on the lineage powered flight evolved. In the process they explore how features that served non-flight purposes when they first appeared, were co-opted to aid in flight (exaptations). 

In the course of doing this activity, students will:

  • Make observations of, describe, and compare flight features among theropod dinosaurs and their relatives
  • Use an evolutionary tree to make hypotheses about the origins of flight in dinosaurs 
  • Discuss, explain, and debate with one another to make observations and explain their reasoning when making hypotheses 
  • Feel like they are doing science

Science Standards (NGSS)

Life Science

3rd Grade

  • 3-LS4-1: Analyze and interpret data from fossils to provide evidence of the organisms and the environments in which they lived long ago.

4th Grade

  • 4-LS1-1 Construct an argument that plants and animals have internal and external structures that function to support survival, growth, behavior, and reproduction.

Grades 6-8

  • MS-LS4-1 Analyze and interpret data for patterns in the fossil record that document the existence, diversity, extinction, and change of life forms throughout the history of life on Earth under the assumption that natural laws operate today as in the past.

Download Materials to Use in Your Classroom

You can print and play this activity using a basic color printer and a laminator, or you can choose to produce something a bit more durable and high fidelity with off-the shelf purchases, 3D printer, and custom print shop. Find instructions for each option below.

It is advised that no more than 5 students engage in the activity at a time. Multiple copies may be necessary to have an entire classroom divide into groups that do the activity at the same time. 

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Resource Type
Hands-On Activities
Grade Level
3-5, 6-8
Learning Standards
Next Generation Science Standards
Life Science, Paleontology
David H. Koch Hall of Fossils - Deep Time