Can This Dinosaur Glide?

  • By David Levin
  • Posted 02.01.08
  • NOVA

In 2000, farmers in China found an extraordinary fossil. Microraptor, a dinosaur about the size of a goose, had four fully formed wings: two on its arms, like birds, plus two on its legs. Paleontologists think Microraptor was incapable of flying like modern birds, but it may have used its limbs to glide from tree to tree. In this virtual wind tunnel, explore how this dinosaur may have glided.

Launch Interactive

How did the bird-sized dinosaur Microraptor use its wings? Take Microraptor for a spin in this virtual wind tunnel.


Can this Dinosaur Glide

Posted February 1, 2008

NARRATOR: They've shown that Microraptor could glide very well without splaying its legs. But how would it perform if it could splay? For one last flight, they reset the model with the hind limbs splayed out 90 degrees to the body.

TEAM MEMBER: Well, there's no way this animal could actually do it, unless it had evolved some interesting mechanism for putting its hip back into its socket.

NARRATOR: Not everyone sees the point of testing a posture they consider anatomically impossible.

MARK NORELL: I mean there's a lot of positions you could put these things in to make them fly better. You could take anything and, if you just squashed it flat, it'll fly, but the animal couldn't physically do it.

NARRATOR: Even so, the engineers are curious and from the beginning, it's a different look.

ENGINEER: This is like a classic airflow behavior or wing behavior. It's a point eight now, I mean, it's still going strong.

NARRATOR: The lift climbs steadily and more predictably than anything they've seen so far.

ENGINEER: I don't think it's a bad configuration by any means except for the fact that it's…

FARISH JENKINS: Except it's impossible. So, in a morphologist's notebook, that's bad.

ENGINEER: That's bad, yes. That's the difference between a paleontologist and an engineer.

FARISH JENKINS: And an engineer! I know! (laughs)

ENGINEER: I don't take impossible as an answer. (laughing)

FARISH JENKINS: But we have to live in the realities of life and this animal couldn't do this.

ENGINEER: But have you no imagination? You just haven't yet discovered this species.



(Microraptor model)
Photo by Mark Davis/© 2008 WGBH Educational Foundation
(Microraptor skeletal image)
© Alan H. Turner/American Museum of Natural History
(all animation)
Courtesy of Hall Train

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