During the late Cretaceous, this gorgeous four-winged Microraptor flitted among the dinosaurs in a region we call China today. Now, paleontologist Darren Naish and his colleagues have done a series of crazy experiments to figure out how these seemingly-impossible bird ancestors flew.
Illustration by Emily Willoughby
With characteristic dry wit, Naish describes part of the experiment on his blog Tetrapod Zoology:
Colin made an accurate, poseable scale model of a Microraptor, kitted out with genuine feathers (from ducks and pigeons) attached in anatomically correct positions and orientations. Those who have been following the development of ideas on the life appearance of non-avian maniraptorans will be interested to note that our model's head, neck and body has the streamlined look more typical of modern birds than of conventional reconstructions of Mesozoic dinosaurs: an inescapable consequence of our considering the full extent of all the feathering present in these animals . . .
The model was placed in the University of Southampton wind tunnel and subjected to various simulations. In view of the controversy about hindlimb posture, we tested the model's performance with sprawling limbs, with the limbs projecting straight downwards, and with the hindlimbs entirely removed. Aerodynamic performance was best when the limbs were in the straight-down posture (Dyke et al. 2013) – a satisfying result given that this is the configuration we regard as most likely. The tail operated as a lift-generating structure, meaning that Microraptor can accurately be described as a five-winged flier, not just a four-winged one.
Notably, Microraptor was never an efficient flier: it suffered from extensive drag in all simulations and was aerodynamically unstable, performing best when moving quickly.
Read more about this daring experiment with Cretaceous animal models and wind tunnels at Tetrapod Zoology.