Kings of the Skies Planet Dinosaur Files


Kings of the Skies

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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Transcript


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If you thought you knew

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all there was to know about dinosaurs, think again.

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This is Planet Dinosaur Files,

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the series that rewrites the prehistory books.

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We are bringing to life the most awesome beasts to walk the Earth.

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With state-of-the-art CGI technology

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that makes you feel like you're right there.

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And I'll be discovering what made these massive,

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lethal and frankly bizarre beasts tick.

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I'll be getting in a spin

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in the Planet Dinosaur Files wing challenge. Prepare for liftoff.

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In the last 20 years, scientists have discovered more dinosaurs

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than in all the centuries that have gone before.

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Amazing new discoveries.

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They reveal a jaw-dropping cast-list of creatures.

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Bigger, weirder, deadlier than we'd ever imagined.

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And this time on Planet Dinosaur Files, I'm asking the question,

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which was the best flying predator in the prehistoric world?

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You might think you know about prehistoric creatures,

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like the huge 12-tonne plant-eater, diplodocus.

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Or the mighty Tyrannosaurus rex, a savage predator,

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who dominated on land for almost five million years.

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But who ruled our planet's skies?

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Prepare to meet the new prehistoric flyers on the block.

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Like microraptor, a nimble tree-climbing hunter.

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Small but deadly,

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with an amazing ability to leap and glide from branch to branch.

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Or sinornithosaurus, another graceful glider.

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Cunning and camouflaged with a lethal secret weapon.

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And the truly enormous hatzegopteryx,

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with the wingspan of a fighter jet,

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a massive, savage beak.

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A brutal, terrifying killer.

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Three extraordinary creatures,

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all amazing new discoveries.

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I'll be looking at what goes into making a top prehistoric flyer.

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First up, no surprise here, flying.

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All of these creatures have wings.

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But how do they use them to move through the air?

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Next, hunting. All our flyers are predators.

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How do they catch their prey?

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And weapons. What have they got in their locker

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for either defence or attack?

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Let's look at our first high-flyer.

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Meet microraptor.

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Less than a metre long, a titchy dinosaur with bird-like feathers.

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But those flesh-ripping teeth show this was a predator.

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Grabbing and snatching prey was its speciality,

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which explains why its name means small robber.

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And this prehistoric lizard called xianglong

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could be microraptor's next meal.

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Micro raptor is a dinosaur, but like a bird,

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it spends most of its time up in the trees.

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Its claws have evolved to help its grip trunks and branches.

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Microraptor lived 120 million years ago

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in an area of the world that's roughly where China is today.

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And microraptor's resemblance to a bird is no coincidence.

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Every bird alive today is descended from the dinosaurs.

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From magpies, seen in any back garden,

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to these massive ostriches on the plains of Africa.

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Their feathers, claws, beaks and even their skeletons

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have a lot in common with the features of many dinosaurs.

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Unlike ostriches, of course, microraptor was well-suited to

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chasing prey in the trees, but just when it's closing in on dinner,

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xianglong, the prehistoric lizard, has a surprise in store.

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I bet he didn't see that coming. Amazing! A lizard with wings!

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But two can play at that game.

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Those feathers aren't just for keeping warm or show,

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this dinosaur can fly.

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Well, glide at least, by leaping from the tree branch like xianglong.

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And there are also creatures today who do just the same.

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This lizard, a flying dragon in the jungles of Borneo, south-east Asia,

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uses its wings to escape from a tight spot.

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And if you think that's weird, how about a flying snake?

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Your eyes aren't deceiving you.

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It just turned its whole body into one long, gliding wing.

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But what made microraptor

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so good at gliding is that it has not just two wings, but four,

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not to mention a long tail that helped to balance it in the air.

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How can we be sure that microraptor had these extraordinary wings?

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By taking a look at the evidence, that's how.

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This beautifully preserved fossil is of microraptor.

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Found in China in 2000, it revealed something amazing.

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This was a dinosaur with the flight feathers of a bird

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on both its arms and legs.

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That proved microraptor really had four wings,

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like a glider aeroplane, with its two main long wings

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and two smaller tail fins. All microraptor needed to glide

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was a high branch to jump from and it was away.

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Time to wing our way to the workshop to find out more.

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We know microraptor was a gliding dinosaur,

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but how good a glider could it have been?

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To investigate that, we've built ourselves a microraptor wing.

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This from the records we could get hold of is pretty much

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the shape we reckon the real thing would have been.

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We've also made our own version of a classic machine

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for testing wing shapes. It's called a whirling arm.

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Put the wing in at one end and then at the other end,

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we've got a counterbalance, a weight at the other end to keep it level.

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Perfectly balanced. The next step is to start it spinning.

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Once the wing starts moving through the air,

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it should, if it's a wing, start getting lift.

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That's the force a wing feels when it pushes through the air.

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Lift is what keeps anything that flies up in the sky,

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from birds to aeroplanes.

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With our rig, the more lift it gets, the higher it's going to go.

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With a flying dinosaur, the more lift that gets,

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the longer it's able to glide.

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And to get it spinning, we've got that massive weight

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and the idea is that weight is going to get pulled up to the ceiling

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and then it starts unwinding the string

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that's round the central pole, making this spin pretty quickly.

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To measure how much lift I'm getting,

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I've got my special flying gauge.

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Let's wind up that big weight, ready for my microraptor wing.

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I want to know whether this creature was a first-class flyer.

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The weight's ready, the wing is set on the end of the arm,

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let's see how this glides.

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Look at that! As soon as that wing starts gliding through the air,

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it starts generating lift and that arm is noticeably going up.

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You can see why microraptor was a good glider.

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I'm going to go and stop it.

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There we go.

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That wing definitely achieved lift as it was gliding through.

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On my scale, I've got it just coming out of economy, up towards business.

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But remember, microraptor had four wings, two on each side of its body.

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Let's see what difference that makes to the way it glides.

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Microraptor's extra wing gives it a boost straightaway.

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In our experiment, it appears that extra wing does make a difference.

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We managed to nudge microraptor out of being an economy-class glider

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up into business class.

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That's microraptor then. Brilliant in the air

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and nifty up trees.

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For flying, it was quick. A swift glider.

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Hunting, it crept up on its prey by climbing trees.

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And weapons? Well, for chasing prey that could fly,

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it had that little bit extra - four wings.

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But microraptor wasn't the only flying predator in the forest.

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This is sinornithosaurus, a close relative of microraptor but bigger.

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Its weird-sounding name means Chinese bird-like dinosaur.

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It lived in the same forests of China as microraptor.

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This odd-looking fellow had a reputation as a meal stealer.

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But here, sinornithosaurus isn't after that lizard.

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It's after microraptor.

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Suddenly, the hunter has become the hunted.

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For some predators, their prey can be another predator.

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Sinornithosaurus, like microraptor,

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was a feathered tree-climbing predator with wings.

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It could also glide from tree to tree.

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But when it comes to flying,

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there's a difference between these dinosaurs.

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Sino has just two wings, compared to microraptor's four.

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But sino's wings are larger.

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So back in the dinosaur workshop, I've got a new wing to test.

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That's my sinornithosaurus wing

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attached to the end of my whirling arm.

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I'm going to drive it around with the same falling weight

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as we had for the microraptor and see how it performs as a glider.

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Remember, microraptor's extra leg wing pushed it into business class.

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Sino's not got that extra wing, but the one it has is bigger.

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Which will work best?

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It's getting a decent amount of lift.

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But look at it alongside microraptor's performance.

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It's close, but not rising to quite the same height.

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There we go.

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The sinornithosaurus with this kind of wing is producing a lift,

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quite noticeable lift.

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But on my scale, it is only just coming out of economy class.

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It's not into business class yet. It's pretty simple.

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If one wing gives you a bit of lift,

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there is every chance that two will give you even more.

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So, on flying, it's advantage microraptor

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in the search for my top prehistoric flyer.

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But to be a successful tree-hunting predator

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was not just about gliding ability.

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These dinosaurs also had to operate on the forest floor

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because gliders, of course, have to land.

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And down here, the tables are turned.

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Microraptor's extra wings on its legs were a great advantage

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when gliding but they slow it down

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when it has to move quickly on the ground.

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Sinornithosaurus, with no awkward wings on its legs, is quicker

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and is gradually catching microraptor.

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But sino just misses out.

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A lucky escape for microraptor.

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Sinornithosaurus hasn't given up on dinner yet though.

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It had other tricks up its sleeve, like camouflage.

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Using camouflage is what some feathered creatures

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do in the wild today.

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Look at this. It's a potoo bird.

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It lives in the rainforests of Brazil in South America.

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Its grey colour means it can blend in with this tree trunk.

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And when it shuts its eyes and beak,

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it makes its body look like just another tree branch.

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It's doing this to hide from possible danger.

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Camouflage can be just as handy for hunting as it is for hiding.

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Our sinornithosaurus is using its camouflage to help stalk prey.

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Here, it's following this family of small plant-eating dinosaurs

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called jeholosaurus.

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It's hoping it can get close to one of the youngsters

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without the mother knowing and get itself a meal.

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This is the chance it's been waiting for.

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Suddenly, the mother jeholosaurus comes back to defend its kid.

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But what she didn't need was sino reinforcements arriving.

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Now she's outnumbered.

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And there's another weapon these predators can call on.

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A bite with a hidden deadly ingredient - venom.

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How do we know this? By taking a look at the evidence, that's how.

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These are the fossilised teeth of a sinornithosaurus.

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They're very similar to these grooved gnashers

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which belong to a creature called a gila monster.

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Here's one in the wild.

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And you really wouldn't want to be bitten by it.

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This deadly lizard lives in desert areas of the USA.

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The gila monster produces venom behind its teeth,

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a lethal liquid it uses to poison its prey when it bites.

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Dinosaur experts reckon that sinornithosaurus

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had the same kind of vicious bite.

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A gliding dinosaur with a poisonous bite,

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that's a really deadly combination.

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So, that's sinornithosaurus,

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another impressive treetop swooper.

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For flying, not quite up to microraptor's level,

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but still a good glider.

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Hunting-wise, it could sneak up on prey

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with the help of its camouflage.

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And weapons? Its bite was made more deadly by that lethal venom.

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Both the dinosaurs we've seen so far could fly.

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But their flying was limited to gliding from tree to tree.

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And remember, I'm looking for the ultimate flying predator.

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The prehistoric flyers that seem most astonishing to me

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are the ones that could take off from the ground

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and stay in the air for hours on end.

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Creatures like hatzegopteryx.

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This mind-blowingly massive beast

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patrolled the skies 65 million years ago.

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At that time, Europe was made up of lots of islands,

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one of which was called Hatzeg,

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which is how this monster gets its name.

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And it really is a monster.

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Hatzegopteryx was over five metres tall

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and had an enormous 10-metre wide wingspan.

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That's as big as this modern jet fighter.

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Hatze is a kind of prehistoric flying reptile called a pterosaur.

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It's one of the largest flying creatures ever known.

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This was truly an incredible flying machine.

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It could glide like microraptor and sinornithosaurus

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but it had the muscles for powered flight,

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so it could flap those colossal wings and take off where it liked.

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Usually, the long-necked sauropods were the biggest beasts in town.

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Here, though, they're dwarfed by hatzegopteryx.

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How do we know that a flying reptile could actually get this big?

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By taking a look at the evidence, that's how.

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These are the fossilised footprints of a pterosaur,

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very like hatzegopteryx.

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Discovered in 2002, they measure a massive 35 centimetres across,

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proving that these creatures could be huge.

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Imagine if hatzegopteryx were around today.

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It would be three times bigger than the world's largest flying bird,

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the wandering albatross.

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And when it landed on the ground, it would be as tall as a giraffe.

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Take a look at this condor from South America.

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This bird glides a bit like hatze.

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A condor's wings take advantage of warm air currents called thermals.

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They help it stay in the air for hours on end.

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Dinosaur experts believe pterosaurs like hatzegopteryx

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could do the same.

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Stunning in the air, what was hatzegopteryx like on the ground?

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Well, despite appearances, it was surprisingly effective.

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Those fossilised footprints show that hatzes

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could comfortably walk on all fours

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because they had a second pair of feet of the joint of their wings.

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And on Hatzeg island,

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it was by far and away the biggest creature around.

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Look at it alongside these small plant-eating magyarosaurs.

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These sauropods are actually very similar

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to the most massive dinosaur ever, argentinosaurus.

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The big difference is in size.

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Fully-grown magyarosaurs were about the size of a pony,

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a staggering 70 times smaller than their South American cousins.

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On Hatzeg, there was not enough food to fill up big plant-eaters

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and this is why magyarosaurs ended up being so small.

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But that made them the perfect prey

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for a much bigger predator like hatzegopteryx.

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But like lots of other prehistoric predators we've seen,

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hatzegopteryxes were likely to squabble over a meal

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with their rivals, which is lucky for this magyarosaurus.

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But these hatzes won't go hungry for long,

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as they can quickly take flight in search of more food.

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Back to my whirling arm in the Planet Dinosaur Files workshop.

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This is a hatzegopteryx wing.

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They were a force to be reckoned with, on the ground and in the air

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and it could take off of its own right, flap its wings

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and rise to the skies.

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Also, it was huge.

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We could never get a real-size hatzegopteryx wing

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to be flinging around in here. We have had to scale things down a bit.

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This is about a fifth of its length.

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To make it a fair test, I am not going to try and flap this wing,

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we're going to let it glide like we did with the others.

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Hopefully we will get an idea

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of how effective these different wing styles are for gliding flight.

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Remember, microraptor did well with that extra wing,

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while sinornithosaurus was not quite such a good glider.

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Hatze, like sino, had two wings. So how will it do?

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Look at it soar!

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Hatzegopteryx is a surprisingly good glider.

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Watch it beside microraptor. Even at one-fifth its real size,

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it's definitely getting more lift.

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That wing's a classic aerodynamic shape for flying.

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It seems two wings can be more effective than four,

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if they are the right shape. There we go.

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That was without a doubt getting well into business class.

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But, and it is a big but,

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this dinosaur had the option of powered flight as well.

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That's hatzegopteryx, a gigantic pterosaur with huge wings.

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So how does the amazing hatzegopteryx measure up

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to our other new prehistoric flyers?

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There was microraptor, a brilliant tree-climbing predator.

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For flying, it was quick through the air, a swift glider.

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Hunting?

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Remember, it locked on to prey with its tree-climbing skills.

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And weapons? It had a crucial edge with those four wings.

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Then sinornithosaurus,

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another forest-dwelling dinosaur that swooped from tree to tree.

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Flying? Not quite the standard of microraptor,

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but still a good glider. What about hunting?

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Using its camouflage was a great way of getting dinner.

0:26:460:26:50

And weapons? A vicious bite was made more deadly by that lethal venom.

0:26:500:26:55

And finally, that terrifying tongue twister,

0:26:570:27:02

the incredible hatzegopteryx.

0:27:020:27:04

Flying? This enormous pterosaur had a wingspan as wide as a fighter jet.

0:27:060:27:12

For hunting, this monster was versatile.

0:27:120:27:15

Stunning in the air but brutal on the ground.

0:27:150:27:18

And weapons?

0:27:180:27:20

That huge three-metre beak was perfect for snapping up prey.

0:27:200:27:24

But which of these high-flyers is going to be king of the air?

0:27:260:27:31

It's small versus large, camouflage versus climbing,

0:27:310:27:35

venom versus versatility.

0:27:350:27:39

It's a tough one to call this week, but my winner, just,

0:27:390:27:43

is the magnificent hatzegopteryx.

0:27:430:27:47

In the end, that all-round flying brilliance swung it for me.

0:27:480:27:52

Next time on Planet Dinosaur Files, we go weird.

0:27:580:28:02

I turn myself into a very strange creature

0:28:020:28:06

and test a dinosaur egg to destruction.

0:28:060:28:09

Argh!

0:28:090:28:12

E-mail [email protected]

0:28:120:28:15

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.


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