Microraptor, a small dinosaur that lived in northeast China about 120 million years ago, had feathers on its wings, hind legs and tail. But in all likelihood, it didn't fly like a bird. Instead, it glided from trees and cruised over "medium distances" – but not very often, according to a study published online Wednesday in Nature Communications.
This picture of Microraptor, whose fossils were discovered only 15 years ago, is the result of wind tunnel experiments conducted at the University of Southampton in England.
Researchers built a model of this roughly 3-foot-long creature, using fossils as a guide. As you can see in the video above, the body shape bears some resemblance to a bowling pin. Attached to that are a pair of feather-trimmed wings, a pair of long hind legs with some more feathers toward the feet, and a pointy tail that looks like an arrow used in archery. The legs were able to bend at the hip, knee and ankle, allowing the researchers to test Microraptor's flight-worthiness in a variety of configurations, and two different tail sizes were used in the experiments.
The wind tunnel tests allowed engineers to determine microraptor's lift (the force that keeps it aloft) and drag (the air resistance). Together, these measurements allowed the team to determine how fast Microraptor could move through the air, Colin Palmer, a research associate at the University of Southampton, explained in the video. The tests also shed light on whether the dinosaur "was able to maintain a steady path" when it glided through the air, he said.
"The wind tunnel can tell us all those things," said Palmer, one of the authors of the Nature Communications report.
In this case, the wind tunnel told them that Microraptor was well-suited to jump from a height of 65 to 100 feet. That just so happens to be the height of trees in the part of China where they lived, the study noted. The dinosaurs could glide further with their feathered legs hanging down than when they were sprawled out in an X-wing-fighter configuration.
Microraptor did not have wings shaped like those of modern birds, but that didn't seem to be a hindrance. Though it did have feathers, they weren't much of a help to its "flight style" – the model dinosaur had about the same lift-to-drag ratio when it had feathers as when it didn't, according to the study.
The results suggest that Microraptor was a "remarkably effective" glider when covering "medium distances starting from moderate heights," the study authors wrote. Still, it probably spent more of its time climbing in trees and foraging on the ground, they concluded.
Even if Microraptor spent relatively little time in the air, the small dinosaur still demonstrates that "aerial adaptation … was not a short-lived evolutionary event."
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