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Scientists test model dinosaur wings

A team seeks to discover how the cat-sized Microraptor gui used its four wings to fly. They think it probably glided like a modern flying squirrel.

January 30, 2010|By Amina Khan

The long-dead bones of a four-winged dinosaur, the cat-sized Microraptor gui, have inspired lively argument among present-day paleontologists. How, they ask, did such an animal coast through the skies?

For a study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers took an unusual approach to test the 125-million-year-old dinosaur's flight capability -- they built a life-size model microraptor from a beautifully preserved fossil skeleton found in China.

Little is known about how this microraptor lived, but some scientists believe it probably glided from tree to tree in the subtropical forests, eating insects and smaller animals.

Researchers at the University of Kansas and Northeastern University in China made a full cast of an unusually intact microraptor fossil without disturbing the bones' positions in relation to each other. Then they covered the cast with clay "flesh" and added real bird feathers, trimmed to size.

Based on that re-creation, the team built a foam-filled model with plastic feathers, then tested its ability to fly with its wings in different positions, catapulting it into the air at close to 20 miles per hour.

Other researchers have proposed a "biplane" model of flight -- with the back wings positioned a little underneath, and parallel to, the front wings.

But with their model, the authors found this would have made the animal's body stay in an awkward upright position while flying.

They found that the most efficient flying position was with the back wings splayed out like a flying squirrel -- and that the dinosaur would have been able to glide much farther than the modern tree-dwelling rodent.

Coauthor Larry Martin, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology in the University of Kansas' paleontology division, said that the study strongly suggests that the ancestors of birds first took flight from trees rather than the ground.

Others in the field disagreed.

"It's a fine study on trying to understand the potential of how this four-winged feathered organism might have glided through the air. I think that's admirable. We need more of that," said Ken Dial, a professor in the University of Montana's biological sciences division.

But, he added, the research said nothing about how birds evolved the ability to fly.

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