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Four-Winged Dinosaur, The

Program Overview

Microraptor NOVA follows the fossil discovery and model recreation of the four-winged dinosaur, Microraptor gui, and investigates competing theories of how birds evolved.

The program:

  • profiles the Liaoning Province in northeastern China, where the 130 million-year-old fossils were found.

  • notes that the first fossils of the feathered dinosaurs turned up a decade ago.

  • explains how one researcher noticed that Archaeopteryx, recognized since the 1860s as the earliest bird, looked like a miniature version of Deinonychus, a lightly built meat-eating dinosaur.

  • reviews the competing theories that flight originated from the ground up with dinosaurs versus evolving from reptiles gliding in the treetops.

  • presents research with chukkars (a type of bird) showing how they use their developing wings to scramble up surfaces, a motion that later helps them fly.

  • shows how a scientific artist at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) uses photos of more than 16 Microraptor specimens, analysis of scientific literature, and precise measurements to sculpt a three-dimensional recreation of the Microraptor gui skeleton.

  • reports on efforts by scientists at the University of Kansas to recreate a Microraptor by casting bones from a single specimen.

  • relates the Kansas group's hypothesis that its model shows that Microraptor's hip joint could only allow a sprawling posture that would not have been possible for dinosaurs, contrary to what the AMNH model reveals.

  • documents the inspection of each group's model by the other, and the continued confidence of each group in its original hypothesis.

  • illustrates a model builder using the AMNH scientific reconstruction to create a jointed model of Microraptor, complete with feathers.

  • details how scientists tested the model in various wing positions in MIT's Wright Brothers Wind Tunnel, and reports what they learned about the lift and drag forces generated in each position.

  • concludes by looking at Microraptor's position in the dinosaur family tree, and notes that there will always be questions regarding how birds evolved that cannot be answered with absolute certainty.

Taping Rights: Can be used up to one year after program is recorded off the air.

Teacher's Guide
Four-Winged Dinosaur, The