Model Dinosaur In Wind Tunnel Suggests Microraptor Feathers Were For Mating, Not Flying [VIDEO]

By Philip Ross on September 19, 2013 11:17 AM EDT

flying dino
Scientists say that the wings of the microraptor, a small, four-winged creature related to modern birds, probably weren’t for flight. (Photo: Creative Commons)

To study how modern birds' earliest ancestor flew, scientists at the University of Southampton in the UK built an anatomically accurate model of a flying dinosaur that soared the skies some 125 million years ago. It's the first-ever model of a microraptor, a small, four-winged creature with an evolutionary relationship to today's feathered aviators.

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The microraptor, which has a body shaped like a bowling pin and wings like an X-wing-fighter, is believed to be the first two-footed dinosaur to have feathers. The first microraptor fossil with preserved evidence of feathers was uncovered in China in 2003. It showed evidence of having plumage on all four of its limbs.

New Scientists reports that, after observing how the 3-foot-long model microraptor performed in the wind tunnel, scientists determined that the flying reptile would have been an excellent glider even without feathers. They say the results indicate that the prehistoric bird's feathers weren't for flight, but may instead have been for wooing a mate.

"Microraptor did not require a sophisticated, 'modern' wing morphology to undertake effective glides," the study, published Wednesday in "Nature Communications," notes. "Symmetric feathers first evolved in dinosaurs for non-aerodynamic functions, later being adapted to form lifting surfaces."

According to The Los Angeles Times, the wind tunnel allowed researchers to see just how much lift and drag the microraptor experienced during flight. They determined that the dinosaur was an excellent glider, and was well suited for taking off from heights of 65 to 10 feet -- the same height as that of the trees in China where the microraptor lived.

The dinosaur probably spent more time climbing trees and foraging on the ground, the researchers concluded. This has led scientists to hypothesize that the microraptor's feathers were possibly used in sexual-selection displays.

"That's a key thing, because for many years scientists thought feathers were unique to birds as a great adaption for generating flight," said Southampton's Gareth Dyke, who worked on the wind tunnel study, according to UPI. "But it seems almost 100 percent certain that feathers evolved for something else. We just have to figure out what for."

Lots of birds today use their plumage to attract a mate. Probably the best example of this is the peacock. From About:

Flamboyant plumage colors and elaborate displays of prominent feathers, skin sacs or body shape can show off how strong and healthy a bird is, advertising its suitability as a mate. Peafowl are one of the best known bird species for their stunning display with the males' extensive fan, though other birds may use subtle changes in posture to show off their plumage to the best effect.

Here's video, uploaded to YouTube, of the microraptor model suspended in a wind tunnel:

Read more from iScience Times:

Ancient Crocodiles Were Able To Run Like Dogs And Walk On Two Feet To Evade Dinosaurs, Say Researchers

Dinosaur Fossils Auction: Scientists Appalled That 'Montana Dueling Dinosaurs' Fossil Will Be Sold, Not Studied [VIDEO]

Dinosaur Tail In Mexico Desert Is A Staggering 16-Feet In Length, May Belong To Duck-Billed Hadrosaur [PHOTOS]

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