Jem Stansfield enters the amazing world of Planet Dinosaur. Jem looks at the four-winged glider microraptor, and the incredibly huge hatzegopteryx.
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If you thought you knew
all there was to know about dinosaurs, think again.
This is Planet Dinosaur Files,
the series that rewrites the prehistory books.
We are bringing to life the most awesome beasts to walk the Earth.
With state-of-the-art CGI technology
that makes you feel like you're right there.
And I'll be discovering what made these massive,
lethal and frankly bizarre beasts tick.
I'll be getting in a spin
in the Planet Dinosaur Files wing challenge. Prepare for liftoff.
In the last 20 years, scientists have discovered more dinosaurs
than in all the centuries that have gone before.
Amazing new discoveries.
They reveal a jaw-dropping cast-list of creatures.
Bigger, weirder, deadlier than we'd ever imagined.
And this time on Planet Dinosaur Files, I'm asking the question,
which was the best flying predator in the prehistoric world?
You might think you know about prehistoric creatures,
like the huge 12-tonne plant-eater, diplodocus.
Or the mighty Tyrannosaurus rex, a savage predator,
who dominated on land for almost five million years.
But who ruled our planet's skies?
Prepare to meet the new prehistoric flyers on the block.
Like microraptor, a nimble tree-climbing hunter.
Small but deadly,
with an amazing ability to leap and glide from branch to branch.
Or sinornithosaurus, another graceful glider.
Cunning and camouflaged with a lethal secret weapon.
And the truly enormous hatzegopteryx,
with the wingspan of a fighter jet,
a massive, savage beak.
A brutal, terrifying killer.
Three extraordinary creatures,
all amazing new discoveries.
I'll be looking at what goes into making a top prehistoric flyer.
First up, no surprise here, flying.
All of these creatures have wings.
But how do they use them to move through the air?
Next, hunting. All our flyers are predators.
How do they catch their prey?
And weapons. What have they got in their locker
for either defence or attack?
Let's look at our first high-flyer.
Less than a metre long, a titchy dinosaur with bird-like feathers.
But those flesh-ripping teeth show this was a predator.
Grabbing and snatching prey was its speciality,
which explains why its name means small robber.
And this prehistoric lizard called xianglong
could be microraptor's next meal.
Micro raptor is a dinosaur, but like a bird,
it spends most of its time up in the trees.
Its claws have evolved to help its grip trunks and branches.
Microraptor lived 120 million years ago
in an area of the world that's roughly where China is today.
And microraptor's resemblance to a bird is no coincidence.
Every bird alive today is descended from the dinosaurs.
From magpies, seen in any back garden,
to these massive ostriches on the plains of Africa.
Their feathers, claws, beaks and even their skeletons
have a lot in common with the features of many dinosaurs.
Unlike ostriches, of course, microraptor was well-suited to
chasing prey in the trees, but just when it's closing in on dinner,
xianglong, the prehistoric lizard, has a surprise in store.
I bet he didn't see that coming. Amazing! A lizard with wings!
But two can play at that game.
Those feathers aren't just for keeping warm or show,
this dinosaur can fly.
Well, glide at least, by leaping from the tree branch like xianglong.
And there are also creatures today who do just the same.
This lizard, a flying dragon in the jungles of Borneo, south-east Asia,
uses its wings to escape from a tight spot.
And if you think that's weird, how about a flying snake?
Your eyes aren't deceiving you.
It just turned its whole body into one long, gliding wing.
But what made microraptor
so good at gliding is that it has not just two wings, but four,
not to mention a long tail that helped to balance it in the air.
How can we be sure that microraptor had these extraordinary wings?
By taking a look at the evidence, that's how.
This beautifully preserved fossil is of microraptor.
Found in China in 2000, it revealed something amazing.
This was a dinosaur with the flight feathers of a bird
on both its arms and legs.
That proved microraptor really had four wings,
like a glider aeroplane, with its two main long wings
and two smaller tail fins. All microraptor needed to glide
was a high branch to jump from and it was away.
Time to wing our way to the workshop to find out more.
We know microraptor was a gliding dinosaur,
but how good a glider could it have been?
To investigate that, we've built ourselves a microraptor wing.
This from the records we could get hold of is pretty much
the shape we reckon the real thing would have been.
We've also made our own version of a classic machine
for testing wing shapes. It's called a whirling arm.
Put the wing in at one end and then at the other end,
we've got a counterbalance, a weight at the other end to keep it level.
Perfectly balanced. The next step is to start it spinning.
Once the wing starts moving through the air,
it should, if it's a wing, start getting lift.
That's the force a wing feels when it pushes through the air.
Lift is what keeps anything that flies up in the sky,
from birds to aeroplanes.
With our rig, the more lift it gets, the higher it's going to go.
With a flying dinosaur, the more lift that gets,
the longer it's able to glide.
And to get it spinning, we've got that massive weight
and the idea is that weight is going to get pulled up to the ceiling
and then it starts unwinding the string
that's round the central pole, making this spin pretty quickly.
To measure how much lift I'm getting,
I've got my special flying gauge.
Let's wind up that big weight, ready for my microraptor wing.
I want to know whether this creature was a first-class flyer.
The weight's ready, the wing is set on the end of the arm,
let's see how this glides.
Look at that! As soon as that wing starts gliding through the air,
it starts generating lift and that arm is noticeably going up.
You can see why microraptor was a good glider.
I'm going to go and stop it.
There we go.
That wing definitely achieved lift as it was gliding through.
On my scale, I've got it just coming out of economy, up towards business.
But remember, microraptor had four wings, two on each side of its body.
Let's see what difference that makes to the way it glides.
Microraptor's extra wing gives it a boost straightaway.
In our experiment, it appears that extra wing does make a difference.
We managed to nudge microraptor out of being an economy-class glider
up into business class.
That's microraptor then. Brilliant in the air
and nifty up trees.
For flying, it was quick. A swift glider.
Hunting, it crept up on its prey by climbing trees.
And weapons? Well, for chasing prey that could fly,
it had that little bit extra - four wings.
But microraptor wasn't the only flying predator in the forest.
This is sinornithosaurus, a close relative of microraptor but bigger.
Its weird-sounding name means Chinese bird-like dinosaur.
It lived in the same forests of China as microraptor.
This odd-looking fellow had a reputation as a meal stealer.
But here, sinornithosaurus isn't after that lizard.
It's after microraptor.
Suddenly, the hunter has become the hunted.
For some predators, their prey can be another predator.
Sinornithosaurus, like microraptor,
was a feathered tree-climbing predator with wings.
It could also glide from tree to tree.
But when it comes to flying,
there's a difference between these dinosaurs.
Sino has just two wings, compared to microraptor's four.
But sino's wings are larger.
So back in the dinosaur workshop, I've got a new wing to test.
That's my sinornithosaurus wing
attached to the end of my whirling arm.
I'm going to drive it around with the same falling weight
as we had for the microraptor and see how it performs as a glider.
Remember, microraptor's extra leg wing pushed it into business class.
Sino's not got that extra wing, but the one it has is bigger.
Which will work best?
It's getting a decent amount of lift.
But look at it alongside microraptor's performance.
It's close, but not rising to quite the same height.
There we go.
The sinornithosaurus with this kind of wing is producing a lift,
quite noticeable lift.
But on my scale, it is only just coming out of economy class.
It's not into business class yet. It's pretty simple.
If one wing gives you a bit of lift,
there is every chance that two will give you even more.
So, on flying, it's advantage microraptor
in the search for my top prehistoric flyer.
But to be a successful tree-hunting predator
was not just about gliding ability.
These dinosaurs also had to operate on the forest floor
because gliders, of course, have to land.
And down here, the tables are turned.
Microraptor's extra wings on its legs were a great advantage
when gliding but they slow it down
when it has to move quickly on the ground.
Sinornithosaurus, with no awkward wings on its legs, is quicker
and is gradually catching microraptor.
But sino just misses out.
A lucky escape for microraptor.
Sinornithosaurus hasn't given up on dinner yet though.
It had other tricks up its sleeve, like camouflage.
Using camouflage is what some feathered creatures
do in the wild today.
Look at this. It's a potoo bird.
It lives in the rainforests of Brazil in South America.
Its grey colour means it can blend in with this tree trunk.
And when it shuts its eyes and beak,
it makes its body look like just another tree branch.
It's doing this to hide from possible danger.
Camouflage can be just as handy for hunting as it is for hiding.
Our sinornithosaurus is using its camouflage to help stalk prey.
Here, it's following this family of small plant-eating dinosaurs
It's hoping it can get close to one of the youngsters
without the mother knowing and get itself a meal.
This is the chance it's been waiting for.
Suddenly, the mother jeholosaurus comes back to defend its kid.
But what she didn't need was sino reinforcements arriving.
Now she's outnumbered.
And there's another weapon these predators can call on.
A bite with a hidden deadly ingredient - venom.
How do we know this? By taking a look at the evidence, that's how.
These are the fossilised teeth of a sinornithosaurus.
They're very similar to these grooved gnashers
which belong to a creature called a gila monster.
Here's one in the wild.
And you really wouldn't want to be bitten by it.
This deadly lizard lives in desert areas of the USA.
The gila monster produces venom behind its teeth,
a lethal liquid it uses to poison its prey when it bites.
Dinosaur experts reckon that sinornithosaurus
had the same kind of vicious bite.
A gliding dinosaur with a poisonous bite,
that's a really deadly combination.
So, that's sinornithosaurus,
another impressive treetop swooper.
For flying, not quite up to microraptor's level,
but still a good glider.
Hunting-wise, it could sneak up on prey
with the help of its camouflage.
And weapons? Its bite was made more deadly by that lethal venom.
Both the dinosaurs we've seen so far could fly.
But their flying was limited to gliding from tree to tree.
And remember, I'm looking for the ultimate flying predator.
The prehistoric flyers that seem most astonishing to me
are the ones that could take off from the ground
and stay in the air for hours on end.
Creatures like hatzegopteryx.
This mind-blowingly massive beast
patrolled the skies 65 million years ago.
At that time, Europe was made up of lots of islands,
one of which was called Hatzeg,
which is how this monster gets its name.
And it really is a monster.
Hatzegopteryx was over five metres tall
and had an enormous 10-metre wide wingspan.
That's as big as this modern jet fighter.
Hatze is a kind of prehistoric flying reptile called a pterosaur.
It's one of the largest flying creatures ever known.
This was truly an incredible flying machine.
It could glide like microraptor and sinornithosaurus
but it had the muscles for powered flight,
so it could flap those colossal wings and take off where it liked.
Usually, the long-necked sauropods were the biggest beasts in town.
Here, though, they're dwarfed by hatzegopteryx.
How do we know that a flying reptile could actually get this big?
By taking a look at the evidence, that's how.
These are the fossilised footprints of a pterosaur,
very like hatzegopteryx.
Discovered in 2002, they measure a massive 35 centimetres across,
proving that these creatures could be huge.
Imagine if hatzegopteryx were around today.
It would be three times bigger than the world's largest flying bird,
the wandering albatross.
And when it landed on the ground, it would be as tall as a giraffe.
Take a look at this condor from South America.
This bird glides a bit like hatze.
A condor's wings take advantage of warm air currents called thermals.
They help it stay in the air for hours on end.
Dinosaur experts believe pterosaurs like hatzegopteryx
could do the same.
Stunning in the air, what was hatzegopteryx like on the ground?
Well, despite appearances, it was surprisingly effective.
Those fossilised footprints show that hatzes
could comfortably walk on all fours
because they had a second pair of feet of the joint of their wings.
And on Hatzeg island,
it was by far and away the biggest creature around.
Look at it alongside these small plant-eating magyarosaurs.
These sauropods are actually very similar
to the most massive dinosaur ever, argentinosaurus.
The big difference is in size.
Fully-grown magyarosaurs were about the size of a pony,
a staggering 70 times smaller than their South American cousins.
On Hatzeg, there was not enough food to fill up big plant-eaters
and this is why magyarosaurs ended up being so small.
But that made them the perfect prey
for a much bigger predator like hatzegopteryx.
But like lots of other prehistoric predators we've seen,
hatzegopteryxes were likely to squabble over a meal
with their rivals, which is lucky for this magyarosaurus.
But these hatzes won't go hungry for long,
as they can quickly take flight in search of more food.
Back to my whirling arm in the Planet Dinosaur Files workshop.
This is a hatzegopteryx wing.
They were a force to be reckoned with, on the ground and in the air
and it could take off of its own right, flap its wings
and rise to the skies.
Also, it was huge.
We could never get a real-size hatzegopteryx wing
to be flinging around in here. We have had to scale things down a bit.
This is about a fifth of its length.
To make it a fair test, I am not going to try and flap this wing,
we're going to let it glide like we did with the others.
Hopefully we will get an idea
of how effective these different wing styles are for gliding flight.
Remember, microraptor did well with that extra wing,
while sinornithosaurus was not quite such a good glider.
Hatze, like sino, had two wings. So how will it do?
Look at it soar!
Hatzegopteryx is a surprisingly good glider.
Watch it beside microraptor. Even at one-fifth its real size,
it's definitely getting more lift.
That wing's a classic aerodynamic shape for flying.
It seems two wings can be more effective than four,
if they are the right shape. There we go.
That was without a doubt getting well into business class.
But, and it is a big but,
this dinosaur had the option of powered flight as well.
That's hatzegopteryx, a gigantic pterosaur with huge wings.
So how does the amazing hatzegopteryx measure up
to our other new prehistoric flyers?
There was microraptor, a brilliant tree-climbing predator.
For flying, it was quick through the air, a swift glider.
Remember, it locked on to prey with its tree-climbing skills.
And weapons? It had a crucial edge with those four wings.
another forest-dwelling dinosaur that swooped from tree to tree.
Flying? Not quite the standard of microraptor,
but still a good glider. What about hunting?
Using its camouflage was a great way of getting dinner.
And weapons? A vicious bite was made more deadly by that lethal venom.
And finally, that terrifying tongue twister,
the incredible hatzegopteryx.
Flying? This enormous pterosaur had a wingspan as wide as a fighter jet.
For hunting, this monster was versatile.
Stunning in the air but brutal on the ground.
That huge three-metre beak was perfect for snapping up prey.
But which of these high-flyers is going to be king of the air?
It's small versus large, camouflage versus climbing,
venom versus versatility.
It's a tough one to call this week, but my winner, just,
is the magnificent hatzegopteryx.
In the end, that all-round flying brilliance swung it for me.
Next time on Planet Dinosaur Files, we go weird.
I turn myself into a very strange creature
and test a dinosaur egg to destruction.
E-mail [email protected]
Jem Stansfield takes another extraordinary journey into the jaw-dropping world of Planet Dinosaur. This time he's looking at some amazing new flying creatures, like the four-winged glider microraptor, and the incredibly huge hatzegopteryx. Plus, in his dinosaur workshop he builds some prehistoric wings.