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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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Prehistoric Ticks Once Drank Dinosaur Blood, Fossil Evidence Shows
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Ticks plagued the dinosaurs, too, as evidenced by a 99-million-year old parasite preserved inside a hunk of ancient amber. Entomologists who examined the Cretaceous period fossil noticed that the tiny arachnid was latched to a dinosaur feather—the first evidence that the bloodsuckers dined on dinos, according to The New York Times. These findings were recently published in the journal Nature Communications.

Ticks are one of the most common blood-feeding parasites. But experts didn’t know what they ate in prehistoric times, as parasites and their hosts are rarely found together in the fossil record. Scientists assumed they chowed down on early amphibians, reptiles, and mammals, according to NPR. They didn’t have hard evidence until study co-author David Grimaldi, an entomologist at the American Museum of History, and his colleagues spotted the tick while perusing a private collection of Myanmar amber.

A 99-million-year-old tick encased in amber, grasping a dinosaur feather.
Cornupalpatum burmanicum hard tick entangled in a feather. a Photograph of the Burmese amber piece (Bu JZC-F18) showing a semicomplete pennaceous feather. Scale bar, 5 mm. b Detail of the nymphal tick in dorsal view and barbs (inset in a). Scale bar, 1 mm. c Detail of the tick’s capitulum (mouthparts), showing palpi and hypostome with teeth (arrow). Scale bar, 0.1 mm. d Detail of a barb. Scale bar, 0.2 mm. e Drawing of the tick in dorsal view indicating the point of entanglement. Scale bar, 0.2 mm. f Detached barbule pennulum showing hooklets on one of its sides (arrow in a indicates its location but in the opposite side of the amber piece). Scale bar, 0.2 mm
Peñalver et al., Nature Communications

The tick is a nymph, meaning it was in the second stage of its short three-stage life cycle when it died. The dinosaur it fed on was a “nanoraptor,” or a tiny dino that was roughly the size of a hummingbird, Grimaldi told The Times. These creatures lived in tree nests, and sometimes met a sticky end after tumbling from their perches into hunks of gooey resin. But just because the nanoraptor lived in a nest didn’t mean it was a bird: Molecular dating pinpointed the specimen as being at least 25 million years older than modern-day avians.

In addition to ticks, dinosaurs likely also had to deal with another nest pest: skin beetles. Grimaldi’s team located several additional preserved ticks, and two were covered in the insect’s fine hairs. Skin beetles—which are still around today—are scavengers that live in aerial bird homes and consume molted feathers.

“These findings shed light on early tick evolution and ecology, and provide insights into the parasitic relationship between ticks and ancient relatives of birds, which persists today for modern birds,” researchers concluded in a news release.

[h/t The New York Times]

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The Clever Adaptations That Helped Some Animals Become Gigantic
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Imagine a world in which eagle-sized dragonflies buzzed through the air and millipedes as long as kayaks scuttled across Earth. "Ick"-factor aside for bug haters, these creatures aren't the product of a Michael Crichton fever dream. In fact, they actually existed around 300 million years ago, as MinuteEarth host Kate Yoshida explains.

How did the prehistoric ancestors of today’s itty-bitty insects get so huge? Oxygen, and lots of it. Bugs "breathe by sponging up air through their exoskeletons, and the available oxygen can only diffuse so far before getting used up," Yoshida explains. And when an atmospheric spike in the colorless gas occurred, this allowed the critters' bodies to expand to unprecedented dimensions and weights.

But that's just one of the clever adaptations that allowed some creatures to grow enormous. Learn more about these adaptations—including the ingenious evolutionary development that helped the biggest dinosaurs to haul their cumbersome bodies around, and the pair of features that boosted blue whales to triple their size, becoming the largest animals ever on Earth—by watching MinuteEarth's video below.

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