Dinosaur wind tunnel test provides new insight into the evolution of bird flight (w/ Video)

Sep 18, 2013
This is Microraptor in flight. Credit: Emily Willoughby

A study into the aerodynamic performance of feathered dinosaurs, by scientists from the University of Southampton, has provided new insight into the evolution of bird flight.

In recent years, new fossil discoveries have changed our view of the early evolution of birds and, more critically, their powers of flight. We now know about a number of small-bodied dinosaurs that had feathers on their wings as well as on their legs and tails: completely unique in the fossil record.

However, even in light of new , there has been a huge debate about how these dinosaurs were able to fly.

Scientists from the University of Southampton hope to have ended this debate by examining the of one feathered dinosaur pivotal to this debate—the early Cretaceous five-winged paravian Microraptor. The first described with feathers on its arms, legs and tail (five potential lifting surfaces), Microraptor implies that forelimb-dominated passed through a four-wing ('tetrapteryx') phase and represents an important stage in the evolution of gliding and flapping.

The Southampton researchers performed a series of wind tunnel experiments and flight simulations on a full-scale, anatomically of Microraptor.

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.
This is a video clip reel of wind tunnel testing. Credit: University of Southampton

Results of the team's show that Microraptor would have been most stable gliding when generating large amounts of lift with its wings. Flight simulations demonstrate that this behaviour had advantages since this high lift coefficient allows for slow glides, which can be achieved with less height loss. For gliding down from low elevations, such as trees, this slow, and aerodynamically less efficient flight was the gliding strategy that results in minimal height loss and longest glide distance.

Much debate, centred on the position and orientation of Microraptor's legs and turns out to be irrelevant – tests show that changes in these variables make little difference to the dinosaur's flight.

Dr Gareth Dyke, Senior Lecturer in Vertebrate Palaeontology at the University of Southampton and co-author of the study, says: "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."

This image shows Dr. Roeland de Kat (left) with Dr. Gareth Dyke. Credit: University of Southampton

"This is consistent 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 aerodynamically capable surfaces."

Dr Roeland de Kat, Research Fellow in the Aerodynamics and Flight Mechanics Research Group at the University of Southampton and co-author of the study, says: "What interests me is that aerodynamic efficiency is not the dominant factor in determining Microraptor's glide efficiency. However, it needs a combination of a high lift coefficient and aerodynamic efficiency to perform at its best."

The paper 'Aerodynamic performance of the Microraptor and the evolution of feathered flight' is published in the latest issue of Nature Communications.

Dr Dyke and fellow Southampton palaeontologists will showcase their ground-breaking research at the Celebrating Dinosaur Island: Jehol-Wealden International Conference on 21 and 22 September.

Explore further: Fish was on the menu for early flying dinosaur Microraptor

Related Stories

Mysterious feathered dinosaur was agile flyer

Oct 23, 2012

(Phys.org)—In 2003, a mysterious and surprising dinosaur was discovered that possessed not only wings on its arms but also long feathers on each leg forming a "hind wing." This was a completely new and unexpected body plan ...

Early birds had an old-school version of wings

Nov 21, 2012

In comparison to modern birds, the prehistoric Archaeopteryx and bird-like dinosaurs before them had a more primitive version of a wing. The findings, reported on November 21 in Current Biology, lend support ...

Evidence found of dinosaur that ate birds

Nov 22, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- When people think of dinosaurs, their thoughts generally turn to the giant guys munching plants, or the ferocious beasts preying on smaller animals. In recent years however, evidence has come ...

Feathers too weak for early bird flight

May 13, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- The evolution of flight took longer than previously thought with the ancestors of modern birds “rubbish” at flying, if they flew at all, according to a Manchester scientist.

Recommended for you

Crowd-sourcing Britain's Bronze Age

14 hours ago

A new joint project by the British Museum and the UCL Institute of Archaeology is seeking online contributions from members of the public to enhance a major British Bronze Age archive and artefact collection.

Roman dig 'transforms understanding' of ancient port

14 hours ago

(Phys.org) —Researchers from the universities of Cambridge and Southampton have discovered a new section of the boundary wall of the ancient Roman port of Ostia, proving the city was much larger than previously ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Newlyweds, be careful what you wish for

A statistical analysis of the gift "fulfillments" at several hundred online wedding gift registries suggests that wedding guests are caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to buying an appropriate gift for the ...

Can new understanding avert tragedy?

As a boy growing up in Syracuse, NY, Sol Hsiang ran an experiment for a school project testing whether plants grow better sprinkled with water vs orange juice. Today, 20 years later, he applies complex statistical ...

Roman dig 'transforms understanding' of ancient port

(Phys.org) —Researchers from the universities of Cambridge and Southampton have discovered a new section of the boundary wall of the ancient Roman port of Ostia, proving the city was much larger than previously ...

Crowd-sourcing Britain's Bronze Age

A new joint project by the British Museum and the UCL Institute of Archaeology is seeking online contributions from members of the public to enhance a major British Bronze Age archive and artefact collection.

Better thermal-imaging lens from waste sulfur

Sulfur left over from refining fossil fuels can be transformed into cheap, lightweight, plastic lenses for infrared devices, including night-vision goggles, a University of Arizona-led international team ...

Hackathon team's GoogolPlex gives Siri extra powers

(Phys.org) —Four freshmen at the University of Pennsylvania have taken Apple's personal assistant Siri to behave as a graduate-level executive assistant which, when asked, is capable of adjusting the temperature ...