Tuesday, 23 January 2007

Biplanes of the primordial treetops

When I was younger I had a book about dinosaurs and other related ancient fauna. In this book was a picture of a huge dragonfly flying off with a dead mouse clutched limply in its jaws. I thought this was the best thing ever. I've always thought that the huge versions of modern day animals (giant sloth-bears, giant bear-bears, sabre-tooth tigers etc.) were more interesting than dinosaurs for which I had, and still have, no possible models for comparison. The strange thing is that I've never in my adult life been able to find that picture, so I'm beginning to wonder if I didn't just make it all up. Wouldn't that be great though? A giant dragonfly eating a mouse.
That rambling story brings me to the main point of this post. In 2003 Chinese scientists announced the discovery of a winged dinosaur in the same family as Archaeopteryx, the oldest known bird. This dinosaur, microraptor gui, has two sets of wings, one on its forelimbs and one on it's hind limbs. It was supposed that it would glide from tree to tree, with the wings held out like a giant dragonfly, as the feathers on the hind limbs would hinder its progress on the ground. Recent research using computer simulations of the biomechanics involved, however, suggests that the wings would have been held one on top of the other like some kind of fantastic, ancient, biological biplane, approximately 125 million years before the Wright brothers were even thought of. Now if it only ate mice, I'd be really interested.

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