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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2007 Jan 30;104(5):1576-80. Epub 2007 Jan 22.

Biplane wing planform and flight performance of the feathered dinosaur Microraptor gui.

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  • 1Department of Geosciences, Museum of Texas Tech University, P.O. Box 43191, Lubbock, TX 79401-3191, USA. sankar.chatterjee@ttu.edu

Abstract

Microraptor gui, a four-winged dromaeosaur from the Early Cretaceous of China, provides strong evidence for an arboreal-gliding origin of avian flight. It possessed asymmetric flight feathers not only on the manus but also on the pes. A previously published reconstruction shows that the hindwing of Microraptor supported by a laterally extended leg would have formed a second pair of wings in tetrapteryx fashion. However, this wing design conflicts with known theropod limb joints that entail a parasagittal posture of the hindlimb. Here, we offer an alternative planform of the hindwing of Microraptor that is concordant with its feather orientation for producing lift and normal theropod hindlimb posture. In this reconstruction, the wings of Microraptor could have resembled a staggered biplane configuration during flight, where the forewing formed the dorsal wing and the metatarsal wing formed the ventral one. The contour feathers on the tibia were positioned posteriorly, oriented in a vertical plane for streamlining that would reduce the drag considerably. Leg feathers are present in many fossil dromaeosaurs, early birds, and living raptors, and they play an important role in flight during catching and carrying prey. A computer simulation of the flight performance of Microraptor suggests that its biplane wings were adapted for undulatory "phugoid" gliding between trees, where the horizontal feathered tail offered additional lift and stability and controlled pitch. Like the Wright 1903 Flyer, Microraptor, a gliding relative of early birds, took to the air with two sets of wings.

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