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Scientists run dinosaur wind-tunnel tests

Researchers looking into the evolution of bird flight take a Microraptor model into a wind tunnel for answers.

An artist's view of a Microraptor in flight.
Emily Willoughby

Dinosaurs are cool. Wind tunnels are cool. Put the two together, and you get an experiment that is immensely cool. Researchers at the University of Southampton in the UK placed a full-scale, anatomically accurate model of a Microraptor into a wind tunnel to learn more about how bird flight evolved.

The Microraptor was a five-winged beastie from the early Cretaceous 120 to 125 million years ago. That's three more wings than we're used to seeing in birds today. It hit that total by having feathers on its arms, legs, and tail. This anatomy has led to debate among scientists about how flight worked for these dinosaurs.

The Microraptor was discovered in China 15 years ago, and researchers believe it to be one of the earliest flying dinosaurs. By running wind-tunnel tests on the model (which is almost 3 feet long, complete with real feathers), scientists were able to determine that it was particularly adept at gliding.

"Significant to the evolution of flight, we show that Microraptor did not require a sophisticated, 'modern' wing morphology to undertake effective glides, as the high-lift coefficient regime is less dependent upon detail of wing morphology," says Gareth Dyke, a vertebrate paleontology expert at the University of Southampton.

The results of the research were published in the Nature Communications journal. The abstract concludes, "This is congruent with the fossil record and also with the hypothesis that symmetric 'flight' feathers first evolved in dinosaurs for non-aerodynamic functions, later being adapted to form lifting surfaces."

This research seems to confirm the Microraptor as true precursor to our modern birds. Next, I would like to request a wind-tunnel test of the aerodynamics of a Triceratops.