A remarkable fossil of a feathered dinosaur with four wings has been unearthed in China by scientists who believe the discovery proves that avian flight originated in the trees.
The dinosaur, called Microraptor gui, lived about 125 million years ago and its wing-like hind limbs – the first to be found in any vertebrate – and feathered tail were almost certainly used for gliding from one tree to another.
A team led by Dr Xing Xu of the Chinese Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeanthropology in Beijing discovered six specimens of the species in the rich fossil beds of China's Liaoning Province.
In a study published in the journal Nature, Dr Xu argues that the feathered hind limbs would have made it difficult for the metre-long dinosaur to walk on the ground so it probably lived almost exclusively in trees. The scientists suggest the dinosaur almost certainly represents an intermediate stage between its flightless ancestors and fully-powered flight using two flapping wings.
Dr Richard Prum, a fossil specialist at the University of Kansas at Lawrence, said that Microraptor gui could have glided straight out of the pages of a fanciful account of four-winged beasts published in 1915. The feathers on the dinosaur are asymmetrical, just like those of modern birds, suggesting the animal could fly. It is doubtful, however, that Microraptor could flap all four limbs in way that would permit powered flight, Dr Prum said.