Until or unless we can create a Jurassic Park and build dinosaurs from DNA, the best way to study them may be to build dino models using materials like balsa wood, carbon fiber, and rubber bands.
That’s what a team did for a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences. To figure out how the 120-million-year-old winged dinosaur Microraptor gui took to the skies, the researchers used a well-preserved fossil to build their own. “We went back and forth. We thought, maybe we’ll do 3-D graphics and it’ll look really cool. But it’s more accurate to do the modeling directly from the specimen,” said Dave Burnham, a paleontologist at the University of Kansas [Wired.com].
The micoraptor’s flight configuration has confounded scientists studying it, because no modern vertebrate flies with the hind legs “functioning as independent, fully developed wings,” so there’s no living analog for comparison. Previous studies suggested that the animal walked on the ground, but Burnham’s team argues that the feathered back legs would have prevented this. A 2007 study, also in PNAS, said the dino probably flew with its two sets of legs set parallel, like a biplane. But Burnham, whose team did glider tests with their model microraptor’s wings in three different positions, says the biplane formation would have put too much weight on the creature’s head.
Instead, he argues, the dinosaur would’ve taken off from the trees and glided like a flying squirrel. “The controversy was that these animals couldn’t spread their hind wings to glide,” Burnham says. “But we’ve been able to articulate the bones in their hip socket to show that they could fly” [LiveScience].
The study adds to the debate over how flight evolved in the earliest ancestors of birds–did flight begin when some ground-dwelling creatures hopped and leaped upwards, or when tree-dwelling creatures began to glide between branches? This new study of the microraptor, which is poised on the boundary between dinosaurs and birds, suggests that the arboreal, or tree-living, idea may be correct [LiveScience]. However, co-author David Alexander notes, the controversy probably won’t end here.
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Image: University of Kansas