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NOVA: The Four-Winged Dinosaur

Airs Tuesday, August 24, 2010 at 8 p.m. on KPBS TV

Above: Photo of a "flight-ready" wind tunnel model of Microraptor complete with feathers and articulating joints. Is it the key to understanding the origin of flight or merely an evolutionary dead end unrelated to the ancestry of birds? To help solve the riddle, NOVA assembles a team of top paleontologists, aeronautical engineers and paleo-artists to reconstruct the microraptor and build a sophisticated model for a wind tunnel experiment. The results have surprising implications for long-accepted ideas about how winged flight began.

A fossil of Microraptor, found in a Chinese stone quarry in 2002.
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Above: A fossil of Microraptor, found in a Chinese stone quarry in 2002.

Imagine a moment from the age of dinosaurs frozen in time: primitive birds, bees, insects, early mammals, the first known flowering plants and of course, dinosaurs, all exquisitely preserved in fine-grained fossils from China’s Liaoning Province.

Fossils of the Cretaceous

See the perfectly preserved fossils of feathered dinosaurs and other creatures that lived 130 million years ago.

Volcanic eruptions killed and buried victims quickly in this dinosaur Pompeii, capturing soft, fragile features not normally preserved in fossils — notably the feathers on animals that had never been known to have them before. Now, with state-of-the-art animation to bring this lost world to life, "The Four-Winged Dinosaur" investigates the mysterious feathered dinosaurs that are challenging old ideas about the origin of bird flight.

The central character in this drama is a strange little dinosaur with wings on its legs as well as its arms. The pigeon-sized Microraptor is the smallest adult dinosaur ever found, perhaps the first known tree dweller. But could it really fly? Is it the key to understanding the origin of flight or merely an evolutionary dead end unrelated to the ancestry of birds? To help solve the riddle, NOVA assembles a team of top paleontologists, aeronautical engineers and paleo-artists to reconstruct the Microraptor and build a sophisticated model for a wind tunnel experiment. The results have surprising implications for long-accepted ideas about how winged flight began.

Video

Watch the full episode: "The Four-Winged Dinosaur"

Above: Long ago in the age of dinosaurs, a volcano in eastern China erupted and buried a host of strange creatures in ash, creating exquisite fossils that preserved a big surprise--many dinosaurs were covered in feathers. In "The Four-Winged Dinosaur," NOVA investigates the most bizarre of these feathered dinosaurs, which has rekindled a fierce, decades-long debate over the origin of bird flight.