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10 Feathered Facts About Microraptor

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Nowadays, feathered dinos are all the rage. Since 1999, over 20 new species have been discovered, ranging from sparrow-sized tree-climbers to thirty-foot tyrannosaurs. Among these bird-like beasts, few can match the intrigue of Microraptor, a pint-sized predator from prehistoric China. 

1. It Had Four Wings.

Microraptor had long, powerful feathers anchored onto its arms, but the critter’s hind limbs are where things really start to get unusual. Amazingly, both legs boast wings of their own as well. What did it do with this second pair? Stay tuned for a few suggestions. 

2. By the Way, Microraptor Wasn’t the Only 4-Winged “Raptor.”

Dromaeosaurids (informally called “raptors,” thanks to Jurassic Park) were a group of advanced carnivorous dinosaurs best known for their infamous sickle-shaped toe claws. Some primitive species, like the recently-unearthed Changyuraptor, shared Microraptor’s weird attributes. 

3. Microraptor Occasionally Gobbled Up Fish.

Bon appétit! Fossilized stomach contents reveal that the wee beastie ate some gilled main courses from time to time. As we’ll see, Microraptor’s menu featured poultry too…  

4. Microraptor Shared its Skies with Flying Reptiles and Early Birds.

Essentially modern-looking birds had already evolved by the time Microraptor showed up 120 million years ago, and avian bones have even been found inside one specimen’s gut. Also flapping overhead were various pterosaurs—magnificent winged reptiles which took flight throughout the age of dinosaurs. 

5. It Had Some Contentious Hips.

Did Microraptor, like most dinos, hold its rear legs directly underneath its body? Or did they splay out to its sides crocodile-style while airborne? Trivial as these questions might sound, they have huge implications for understanding how this dinosaur got from place to place.

Scientists disagree about which interpretation is correct, but its hips and upper legs doubtlessly hold the key. Unfortunately, Microraptor’s delicate bones complicate the situation. These usually get crushed during fossilization, distorting their shape significantly.

6. Microraptor Might Have Resembled a Feathery Biplane.

According to one hypothesis, Microraptor stabilized itself by holding its leg-wings beneath and parallel to those on its forelimbs, like a WWI fighter plane. The Red Baron would have approved.

7. It Had a Glossy Coat.

Color-producing organelles called “melanosomes” have been found inside fossilized Microraptor feathers. Close examination of their arrangement reveals that the dinosaur’s plumage was, in life, quite dark and somewhat iridescent. 

8. Microraptor is Delightfully Well-Represented.

Most dinos are known only from a handful of skeletons or partial remains, but several hundred known Microraptor specimens have emerged over the past two decades, allowing paleontologists to extensively compare and contrast individual animals.

9. It’s Been Subjected to Wind Tunnel Experiments.

In 2013, a group based at the University of Southampton constructed a poseable, life-like Microraptor model which was made to assume several positions while hovering inside a wind tunnel. According to team member Darren Naish, their faux dinosaur’s “Aerodynamic performance was best when the limbs were in the straight-down posture… [while the] tail operated as a lift-generating structure.”

Naish and company also argue that although excessive drag would have prevented Microraptor from flying efficiently, it could glide reasonably well.

10. One Scientist Predicted the Discovery of a Microraptor-Like Animal 85 Years in Advance.

In 1915, naturalist William Beebe hypothesized that, at some point during the evolution of avians, four-winged animals were produced. Though Microraptor’s exact placement within the dinosaur-bird transition remains hotly debated, its existence lends credence to Beebe’s prescient hunch.

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The T. Rex Fossil That Caused a Scientific Controversy
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In the early 2000s, a team of paleontologists inadvertently set the stage for a years-long scientific saga after they excavated a well-preserved partial Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton from Montana's Hell Creek formation. While transporting the bones, the scientists were forced to break a femur. Pieces from inside the thigh bone fell out, and these fragments were sent to Mary Schweitzer, a paleontologist at North Carolina State University, for dissection and analysis.

Under a microscope, Schweitzer thought she could make out what appeared to be cells and tiny blood vessels inside the pieces, similar to those commonly discovered inside fresh bone. Further analysis revealed what appeared to be animal proteins, which sent Schweitzer reeling. Could she have just discovered soft tissue inside dinosaur leg bone many millions of years old, found in ancient sediments laid down during the Cretaceous period? Or was the soft stuff simply a substance known as biofilm, which would have been formed by microbes after the bone had already fossilized?

Following a seemingly endless series of debates, studies, and papers, Schweitzer's hunch was proven correct. That said, this contentious conclusion wasn't made overnight. To hear the whole saga—and learn what it means for science—watch the recent episode of Stated Clearly below, which was first spotted by website Earth Archives.

[h/t Earth Archives]

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Fossilized Poop Shows Some Herbivorous Dinosaurs Loved a Good Crab Dinner
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Lead author Karen Chin of the University of Colorado Boulder
Courtesy the University of Colorado Boulder

Scientists can learn a lot about the prehistoric world through very, very old poop. Just recently, researchers from the University of Colorado-Boulder and Kent State University studying fossilized dinosaur poop discovered that some herbivores weren't as picky about their diets as we thought. Though they mostly ate plants, large dinosaurs living in Utah 75 million years ago also seem to have eaten prehistoric crustaceans, as Nature News reports.

The new study, published in Scientific Reports, finds that large dinosaurs of the Late Cretaceous period seem to have eaten crabs, along with rotting wood, based on the content of their coprolites (the more scientific term for prehistoric No. 2). The fossilized remains of dinos' bathroom activities were found in the Kaiparowits rock formation in Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, a known hotspot for pristine Late Cretaceous fossils.

"The large size and woody contents" of the poop suggest that they were created by dinosaurs that were well-equipped to process fiber in their diets, as the study puts it, leading the researchers to suggest that the poop came from big herbivores like hadrosaurs, whose remains have been found in the area before.

Close up scientific images of evidence of crustaceans in fossilized poop.
Chin et al., Scientific Reports (2017)

While scientists previously thought that plant-eating dinosaurs like hadrosaurs only ate vegetation, these findings suggest otherwise. "The diet represented by the Kaiparowits coprolites would have provided a woody stew of plant, fungal, and invertebrate tissues," the researchers write, including crabs (Yum). These crustaceans would have provided a big source of calcium for the dinosaurs, and the other invertebrates that no doubt lived in the rotting logs would have provided a good source of protein.

But they probably didn't eat the rotting wood all year, instead munching on dead trees seasonally or during times when other food sources weren’t available. Another hypothesis is that these "ancient fecal producers," as the researchers call them, might have eaten the rotting wood, with its calcium-rich crustaceans and protein-laden invertebrates, during egg production, similar to the feeding patterns of modern birds during breeding season.

Regardless of the reason, these findings could change how we think about what big dinosaurs ate.

[h/t Nature News]

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