Friday, January 6, 2012

Creature Feature: Microraptor.

I once overheard a conversation stating that, if one adds an extra pair of wings onto anything, it instantly becomes a mythical creature. Put wings on a horse and you get a pegasus; wings on a unicorn implies an alicorn; wings on a lion is usually some sort of sphinx, or, if you prefer, the sacred beast of Mark. This logic falls flat on its face when it comes to dinosaurs.

Yes, four-winged dinosaurs were a thing.

Meet the bird-dinosaurs in the genus Microraptor. They are among the smallest dinosaurs ever found, being about the size and weight of crows. The fossils for Microraptor were found in China, making the scientific names even harder to pronounce than the typical Greco-Roman used in naming dinosaurs.  They ate small mammals and very little else - just like modern raptors! They lived during the early Cretaceous, AKA the period we all REALLY know about despite "Jurassic" being stamped on everything dinosaur-related.

Microraptor did indeed have all of its limbs converted into fully-feathered wings.  However, it was probably more of a glider than a flyer. Scientists think that it flew in graceful, U-shaped arcs from one tree to another. The hands on both wings probably had little use beyond grabbing tree bark.

 Even with some very well-preserved fossils, we cannot tell the proper limb arrangement of this dinosaur. Earlier proposals showed it flying with one wing more or less behind the other, sort of like a dragonfly. The more likely arrangement positions the wings in an X-shape like a biplane, giving the evolution of flight an uncanny parallel to the history of human aviation. We think Microraptor could fly normally as well, but was primarily a glider.

There are debates over whether this four-winged raptor left any evolutionary descendants or not. It is perfectly possible - people had been suggesting a four-winged dinosaur as an avian relative since the 1900's - but there's no conclusive evidence to say one way or the other. The biplane-raptor likely died off, leaving other raptors and feathered dinosaurs to become the birds we know today. Just because it's cool doesn't mean it works.

P.S. Darn Fossil Fighters Champions, eating me alive...


  1. Hi. I stumbled across your blog while researching the Semper Augustus tulip when I convalescing after surgery last November. I immediately became hooked and I've been making my way through the archive. This is a formidable task I soon realised, since you post so often! That's a very good thing though because your blog is such a pleasure to read and there's almost always a new discovery waiting everytime I visit, which is often. I just thought I'd stop skulking around and say thank you for keeping up with what is obviously a labour of love. I enjoy your blog very much and it's on its way to becoming my favourite.

  2. Thank you so much! This blog was meant to fascinate and inspire. If you get sucked into the wormhole, so much the better! :D