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Up, up, and away—this large, long-feathered microraptorine was equipped for fast flight, steep descent, and a controlled landing.
Biological aerodynamic engineering was in high gear long before modern birds evolved, evolutionists believe, based on analysis of some really long tail plumage. A fossilized, high-performance, feathered microraptorine called Changyuraptor yangi is making headlines as the longest-feathered “feathered dinosaur” on record. It had “four wings” (sort of) and a long tail featuring a sleek, aerodynamic design and quill-like feathers about a foot long. Counting the tail, Changyuraptor was about four feet long and weighed around nine pounds.
Paleontologist Luis Chiappe of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, lead author of a recent report in Nature Communications, told the Washington Post, “I’ve never seen anything like it. It is a stunning specimen and it was stunning to see the size of the feathers. This is the dinosaur with the longest known feathers—by far. There is nothing like this by a very good distance. The feathers were one-fourth the size of the animal. It’s just wonderful.”1
Chiappe and his fellow evolutionists consider this fossil purchased from Liaoning Province—the usual source of “feathered dinosaur” fossils, whether feathered or dino-fuzzy, and the source of Archaeoraptor, the most famous fraudulent example—to be a dinosaur. Despite evidence that there had been an attempt to “artificially reconstruct the neck,” the staff of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles believe “that remaining portions of the skeleton and the plumage are authentic.”2 Assuming they are correct, Changyuraptor yangi’s modern-appearing quill-like feathers unquestionably mark it as a bird (discussed further below). And a fine flying bird it must have been!
Changyuraptor had impressive quill-like feathers attached to the lower portion of its hind legs. The same can be said for other animals in the fossil record, such as Archaeopteryx, other small extinct animals like Anchiornis huxleyi and Microraptor gui, and some Cretaceous “four-winged” birds. Extinct animals are of course sadly limited in their ability to demonstrate how they moved, leaving paleontologists to glean clues from their anatomy to determine what was possible for them. Did Changyuraptor use its feather trousers like an extra set of wings to generate lift or just to balance and stabilize its movements? That question still remains unanswered.
In some fossils, feather trousers are oriented perpendicular to the legs. Part of the difficulty of course is that a crushed bunch of fossilized leg feathers can resemble a wing in death when it was no such thing in life. As Kevin Padian of the University of California, Berkeley, has pointed out, “It hasn’t been shown that this [leg feathers on other Microraptors] is really an aerodynamically competent wing.”3
Feathers used for winged flight are typically asymmetrical—with a thin, stiff leading edge to cut through the air and a wider, flexible trailing edge to provide surface area with which to generate lift. Unfortunately, the leg feathers on this specimen, though long—some near the ankle exceeding five inches—were too indistinct due to their overlap to determine whether they were symmetrical or not.4 Nevertheless, the overlap of the leg feathers may itself have allowed the animal to position its legs to enhance the lift it could attain.5 In any case, the function of feather trousers on animals extinct and extant should be an aerodynamic question, not an evolutionary one.
Chiappe’s team’s study focuses farther back (on the body, that is), on the aerodynamic qualities of Changyuraptor’s tail feathers, demonstrating “how the low-aspect-ratio tail . . . would have acted as a pitch control structure reducing descent speed and thus playing a key role in landing.”6
“At a foot in length, the amazing tail feathers of Changyuraptor yangi are by far the longest of any feathered dinosaur,” explains Chiappe.7 “The tail would be able to control the pitch of the animal—that is, adjust its nose down or up—and it would be able to significantly reduce the animal’s speed, which we envision as an advantage when it was landing or catching prey.”8
Chiappe’s team writes that Changyuraptor yangi—named from the Chinese word changyu for “long-feathered”—is “essential for testing hypotheses explaining the origin and early evolution of avian flight. The lengthy feathered tail of the new fossil provides insight into the flight performance of microraptorines and how they may have maintained aerial competency at larger body sizes.”9
Though modern bird flight speed is not limited by size,10 evolutionary paleontologists have historically considered small size to be essential in the evolution of aerial locomotion by “four-winged” microraptorines.11 All the other microraptorines found in the fossil record have been smaller. Chiappe’s study shows that even an animal as large as this could use its tail like an airplane’s to slow its speed prior to landing.
Chiappe says, “Nine pounds for an early flier—that is a pretty sizeable beast.”12 If creatures the size of Changyuraptor were really flying—particularly since paleontologists think “microraptorines likely lacked the forewing strength of modern birds”13—they would need “to slow down and pitch their nose up. Otherwise, they would crash.”14 The tail feathers, it turns out, seem perfectly designed for this purpose.
Changyuraptor’s foot-long symmetrical tail feathers would not have contributed to lift and would actually have interfered with its ability to glide because they formed “an aerodynamic surface of low aspect ratio.”15 Low aspect ratio—a narrow width in proportion to a long dimension in the axis of flight—doesn’t do much for airspeed because it creates a lot of drag. However, the low-aspect-ratio tail would greatly enhance maneuverability. When pitched at the right angle, the long tail would give an animal coming in fast and steep in pursuit of prey excellent flight control and braking ability.
Incidentally, we see this “common design”—a tail suited for pitch control—in another completely different sort of animal, the squirrel. Flattened squirrels in particular use their long flattened tails to control their landings.
As always in discussions of how flying presumably evolved, evolutionists debate whether this winged beast glided down from the trees or started running and flapping to take off from the ground. Chiappe says, “Everyone agrees they were capable of becoming airborne somehow—and I think they took off from the ground flapping. They couldn’t have been able to climb trees like that.” He adds, “This was an unexpected discovery. But it plays a role in the early junction in the evolution of flight.”16 The researchers date the fossil, based on its reported origin in northeastern China’s Liaoning Province, to 125 million years of age.
Calculations of forces and angles achievable with this animal’s anatomy confirm the long tail would have interfered with its ability to glide—casting doubt on evolutionary theories that flight evolved when animals climbed trees and glided down. Instead, Changyuraptor’s tail dimensions “would provide some stabilization and a reduction of speed during steeper descents.”17 The authors conclude that its long tail was “instrumental for decreasing descent speed and assuring a safe landing” and therefore key to the evolution of flight in larger animals.
Because evolutionists generally contend that modern birds didn’t evolve until the Cretaceous Period—taking an evolutionary path from theropod ancestors that differed from that of “early” birds like Archaeopteryx—the research team believes they have discovered evidence that feathered dinosaurs evolved aerodynamic efficiency before their avian descendants. They believe their discoveries about this comparatively large microraptorine will shed light on the evolution of flying in birds.
“Numerous features that we have long associated with birds in fact evolved in dinosaurs long before the first birds arrived on the scene,” explains coauthor Alan Turner of Stony Brook University explains. “This includes things such as hollow bones, nesting behavior, feathers and possibly flight. How well these creatures used the sky as a thoroughfare has remained controversial. The new discovery explains the role that the tail feathers played during flight control. For larger flyers, safe landings are of particular importance.” Coauthor Michael Habib adds, “It makes sense that the largest microraptorines had especially large tail feathers—they would have needed the additional control.”18
What we see in this fossil is not a record of the evolution of flight but grand evidence of God’s design.Though evolutionary scientists seem to think Changyuraptor’s impressive tail screams early evolution of flight, these tail feathers demonstrate that the Creator who designed all kinds of animals about 6,000 years ago was very good at designing things that worked and worked well. Many of those marvelous designs were buried during the catastrophic global Flood about 4,350 years ago, and many animals, like this one, though representatives of its kind were preserved on the Ark, eventually became extinct.
What we see in this fossil is not a record of the evolution of flight but grand evidence of God’s design. Evolution did not have to stumble around for millions of years to equip a variety of living things with the ability to fly, starting with little ones and letting them try out designs and passing the ones that worked on to bigger beasts. God designed all kinds of birds and other flying creatures with all they needed to fly in the beginning.
For that matter, a close look at Changyuraptor shows that its anatomy is distinctly birdlike. It of course—like Archaeopteryx and Anchiornis and Eosinopteryx brevipenna)—has unmistakably quill-like feathers, like those of modern birds. A number of modern birds also have some feathering on their legs. Like them, Changyuraptor’s feathers are only associated with the lower part of the leg—the tibiotarsus and metatarsals—and not with the femur. The femur (thigh bone) of a bird is located up inside its body where it helps by its bellows-like movements to move air through the bird’s unique flow-through respiratory system. That’s just where the femur on this fossil seems to be. In short, there is no reason to consider this animal a feathered dinosaur other than the evolutionists’ need to find an evolutionary ancestor for birds.
God created all kinds of birds about 6,000 years ago (Genesis 1:20–23). So why do modern birds appear higher in the fossil record than other animals that shared the earth with them when the global Flood of Noah’s day struck and, within a short time, totally wrecked their world? We would expect that as the violent floodwaters surged over the surface of the earth, some habitats were destroyed earlier than others and some animals were able to briefly flee destruction for longer than others. What we see in the fossil record is not a record of the evolution of living things over millions of years but rather, for the most part, a record of the order in which countless organisms were catastrophically buried19 by the Flood and related post-Flood events. Fossils like this should remind us of our accountability to our Creator, a God of both righteous judgment and grace (Genesis 6:8, 8:1; John 3:16–36; Romans 6:23), as well as the marvelous things He designed.
Microraptors and Other Four-Winged Animals: