Only slightly larger than a pigeon, Microraptor (“tiny thief”) is one of the smallest known dinosaurs. It was completely covered with feathers and could fly (or at least glide) from tree to tree, sailing on what appear to be four wings. A member of the dromaeosaur family, Microraptor was a carnivore and a close relative of Velociraptor, but it wasn’t a true bird.
■ When: 130–125 million years ago (Early Cretaceous)
■ Fossil location: China
■ Habitat: Woodlands
■ Length: 3 ft (1 m)
■ Diet: Probably small mammals, lizards, and insects
Scientists have found dozens of fossils of Microraptor in China, including more than 20 well-preserved skeletons. Unlike a bird, this creature had teeth, a bony tail, and front legs with large claws, but its fossils also show unmistakeable signs of flight feathers, proving that feathers are not a unique feature of birds but were found in other dinosaurs too.
Microraptor didn’t have the big flight muscles needed to take off by flapping, but it could have used its wings for gliding, much like a flying squirrel.
Its tail had a diamond-shaped fan of feathers at the end, perhaps to steady it in midair. The long feathers on its feet would have gotten in the way when walking or running, so perhaps Microraptor stayed in the trees.
A FOUR-WINGED DINOSAUR?
Microraptor had long, bird-style flight feathers on its arms and legs, giving it what seem to be four wings. How it used these is a mystery. Some scientists suggest it could spread out its hind legs when gliding, but its hip joints may not have had enough flexibility to do this.