"The controversy was that these animals couldn't spread their hind-wings to glide," said Burnham. "But we've been able to articulate the bones in their hip socket to show that they could fly." The new flight model created by Martin and Burnham comes directly from a skeleton composed of casts of the original bones of a microraptor and the preserved impressions of feathers from specimens in Chinese museums.
"We've done the scientific work and flight tests to show that microraptor was a very successful glider," said Burnham. "In 2003, they found one that was so well-preserved that you could count the feathers on its wings."
The fossils also show that an essentially sprawling posture was a plausible hind-limb wing position to provide stable flight with gliding parameters better than those of modern "flying lemurs."
The competing "biplane posture" advanced by other researchers suggested that an upright stance provided for successful glides. But the KU-China team argues that this stance required an impossibly heavy head to maintain a proper center of gravity. Furthermore, the presence of seven-inch-long flight feathers on the feet would prohibit any extended stay on the ground. Thus, microraptor must have been completely arboreal.
"We decided that we would take the skeleton we had, put wings on it from the feather pattern and show that it could fly," said Burnham. "If others think that it was a terrestrial runner, they should make a model and put it on a treadmill and show that it could run with those long feathers on its hind legs."