Modern Lessons From an Ancient Bird

More than 120 million years ago, a feathered dinosaur called Microraptor roamed what is now northeastern China. Unlike any bird alive today, it had four wings—two on its arms and two on its legs. Working with just a few fragile fossils, scientists have been slowly piecing together an idea of what this otherworldly creature looked like and how it moved.

Now UT paleontologist Julia Clarke and collaborators have found that Microraptor’s long, narrow tail was iridescent and served mainly to attract a mate, much like a peacock’s flashy display. The finding, published in Science, contradicts earlier theories that the tail was built for aerodynamics.

“Previous reconstructions of the tail showed it with a flat pad of feathers,” Clarke says. “But we found that it was actually long and skinny with two tiny streamers. It was too narrow to serve an aerodynamic function.”

Clarke believes that understanding how this strange bird moved may shed light on modern bird biology and even engineering. She’s teaming up with UT aerospace engineer Jayant Sirohi to find common ground between dinosaurs and aircraft design.

“The way Micoraptor moved through the air was nothing like how modern birds fly,” Clarke says. “So if we can figure out how ancient fliers used such a dramatically different configuration, then that will also help us think outside the box in terms of the world today.”

Illustration by Mick Ellison.


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