Life On Earth
Did The Dinosaurs Invent Biplane Technology?
Microraptor gui from China compared with the Wright 1903 Flyer (Image: Jeff Martz)
Microraptor gui, a little dinosaur with four feathered limbs, may have glided through the air like a biplane, with its wings paired in parallel, say palaeontologists.
If the hypothesis is correct, it would be the only known example of a living creature employing such a flight mechanism. The microraptor fossil was found in China (see Four-winged dinosaur makes feathers fly) and measures just 77 centimetres from the nose to the tip of its long tail. It dates from 125 million years before biplanes were invented.
Researchers originally suggested that Microraptor spread both arms and legs to the sides of its body to form two pairs of gliding wings. But palaeontologist Sankar Chatterjee of Texas Tech University in Lubbock, US, says that would have been aerodynamically inefficient and that Microraptor's legs could not be splayed sideways.
He says the dinosaur instead folded its legs under its body like modern raptors catching prey, with its long leg feathers sticking out to the side. The asymmetric foot feathers must have had their narrow side facing forward to smooth the flow of air around the leg.
"Once you do this, you have no other choice but the biplane design," Chatterjee told New Scientist. This creates a second set of wings below the body and behind the arm wings, which is "a more anatomically and aerodynamically stable configuration", he believes.
Gregory Paul, a palaeontologist not involved in the study, is unconvinced by the theory, although he allows the model is plausible. Although fossils clearly show flight feathers, their orientation – critical to understanding their role in flight – remains unclear.
"We don't know what they're doing with those hind feathers," Paul told New Scientist. He thinks Microraptor used its hind wings only for gliding, folding them out of the way for powered flight. Clearer fossil finds may provide a definitive answer.
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