Video showing the Microraptor model. Credit: University of Southampton.
The origin of avian flight has long been a mystery. While several possible models exist to explain the evolutionary trajectory of flight, large questions persist. Why did animals begin flying in the first place? An animal wasn't simply born with flight-ready wings one day, so how did this method of travel originate? This week, researchers at the University of Southampton announced they may have illuminated one more piece of this complex puzzle.
In order to better understand bird flight, the researchers examined an avian ancestor: the Microraptor, an Early Cretaceous dinosaur who lived in eastern China. Microraptor is significant for studies such as this because it was the first theropod with five-feathered surfaces—arms, legs, and tail—and because it was likely a capable glider.
Based on fossils of the long-dead creature, the scientists constructed a model, complete with feathers, which was then placed in a wind tunnel to better understand the Microraptor's relation to flying.
According to the researchers, the dinosaur would have been most stable when it was careening through open air with a high lift coefficient. “This high-lift, high-drag flight strategy would have been very efficient for leaping from moderate heights, consistent with tree sizes in the Jehol podocarp forest," they noted.
The researchers also put their results in a larger context. "We show that the Microraptor did not require a sophisticated, 'modern' wing morphology to undertake effective glides... this is congruent with the fossil record and also with the hypothesis that symmetric 'flight' feathers first evolved in dinosaurs for non-aerodynamic functions."
For more information on the Microraptor, check out this clip from the BBC’s Planet Dinosaur, wherein an animated version of this study’s research subject is targeted for termination by another winged dinosaur.