VSL:SCIENCE // The amazing biplane dinosaur

When the Wright brothers flew that first plane — a biplane — at Kitty Hawk, they were unwittingly following in the footsteps of a small, carnivorous dinosaur.

In 2003, Chinese paleontologists made a stunning discovery: the bones of a small raptor, with four wings coated in feathers. At the time, the find was seen as further evidence that birds descended directly from dinosaurs.

But a serious question remained: How did these wings actually work? The initial assumption was that all of the raptor limbs flapped in tandem, like those of a dragonfly. But paleontologists pointed out that this seemed anatomically impossible — the raptor’s joints didn’t bend correctly. The latest theory, put forth by researchers at Texas Tech, is that the dinosaur actually took to the air like a biplane, with two sets of wings stacked on top of each other. A computer simulation of the raptor showed that such a design would have allowed the creature to maneuver more easily and maintain altitude while searching for other animals to eat. Not even Michael Crichton could have dreamt up a predator that scary.

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