Microraptor: Unveiling the Mysteries of a Small Cretaceous Predator

The Microraptor was a diminutive yet intriguing member of the dinosaur community as its name suggests. Discovered in the early 21st century, it has since captivated the imagination of scientists and enthusiasts alike. Imagine a world where these creatures flitted through the forests of ancient China, a testament to the incredible diversity of life that once existed on our planet.

Microraptor Key Facts

Meaning of nameSmall Thief
Type SpeciesMicroraptor zhaoianus
When it Lived125.0 to 113.0 MYA
PeriodEarly Cretaceous
Length2.6 feet
Weight1.1 to 4.1 lbs
MobilityMoved on two legs
First Discovery2000 by Xu Xing
Location of first findJiufotang Formation, Chaoyang, Liaoning, China
First Described by2000 by Xing Xu, Zhonghe Zhou& Xiaolin Wang
HolotypeV 12330

Microraptor Origins, Taxonomy and Timeline

The Microraptor has a name derived from Greek ‘micro’ and Latin ‘raptor’ meaning “Small Thief.” Its etymology reflects its diminutive size and predatory nature. Belonging to the Theropod group, this dino is part of the Dromaeosaurid family. The type species is Microraptor zhaoianus and there are two other species in the genus, M. gui and M. hanqingi.

Illustration of Microraptor, a small, feathered dinosaur from the Early Cretaceous period, depicted in a dynamic pose with wings outstretched. This bipedal, four-winged dinosaur features a sleek, bird-like build with iridescent feathers.
Entelognathus, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This small predator lived during the Early Cretaceous Period, specifically in the Aptian Epoch. Its existence occurred during a time when Asia was experiencing a sudden burst of igneous activity.

Discovery & Fossil Evidence

The discovery of Microraptor is a tale woven with controversy and rich fossil evidence. Initially, the first specimen was part of a chimeric concoction of different feathered dinosaurs. It was then smuggled into the USA. This led to a naming controversy when Storrs Olson, curator of birds at the Smithsonian Institution, named the Microraptor’s tail Archaeoraptor liaoningensis. This was an attempt to remove the name from the paleornithological record. However, Xu Xing, a paleontologist at Beijing’s Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, later described the complete specimen and named it Microraptor zhaoianus

This is one of the most abundant non-avian dinosaurs in its ecosystem, represented by over 300 fossil specimens. These include the notable specimen BPM 1 3-13, initially named Cryptovolans pauli, which later studies revealed to be a junior synonym of Microraptor zhaoianus. Newer specimens have shown features like glossy-black iridescent plumage and a bifurcated tailfan, enriching our understanding of this species.

The abundance of Microraptor fossils, including those initially referred to as Cryptovolans pauli, has been instrumental in piecing together the life and habits of this intriguing dinosaur. Each new discovery adds another layer to the complex story of Microraptor. This makes it not just a subject of scientific study but also a fascinating narrative of paleontological detective work.

Microraptor Size and Description

Now that we have an understanding of how this dinosaur came to be known, let’s delve into its physical characteristics. Despite its diminutive size, this dinosaur’s anatomy was both unique and fascinating.

Short Description of Microraptor

Microraptor was a small yet remarkable creature. Its streamlined body, slender neck, and series of vertebrae leading to a long tail all point to a life of agility and speed. The discovery of feather and wing impressions on several specimens has been a groundbreaking revelation that indicates a complexity in its physical makeup that continues to intrigue scientists.

Size and Weight of Type Species

Size comparison chart showing M. zhaoianus, the type species of Microraptor, next to a human figure for scale. The diagram illustrates both the flight and terrestrial forms of M. zhaoianus, highlighting its small size, unique four-winged anatomy, and bird-like features.
Matt Martyniuk, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This was among the smallest-known non-avian dinosaurs of the Early Cretaceous. The holotype of the species M. gui measured approximately 2.53 feet  in length with an estimated weight of 1.1 to 3.1 pounds. However, there are larger specimens that would have measured at least 2.6 feet in length, a wingspan exceeding 3.2 feet, and a weight between 2.8 and 4.1 pounds. These measurements highlight Microraptor’s status as a small, agile predator in the ancient forests it called home.

The Dinosaur in Detail

Much like the famous Archaeopteryx, this dinosaur offers pivotal evidence regarding the evolutionary link between birds and earlier dinosaurs. The well-preserved fossils are particularly noteworthy for their long feathers, which formed aerodynamic surfaces not just on the arms and tail but also on the legs. This unique feature led paleontologist Xu Xing in 2003 to describe the first specimen that preserved this characteristic as a “four-winged dinosaur.” He speculated that Microraptor might have used all four limbs to glide through the air. Further studies have even suggested that it was capable of powered flight, a remarkable capability that adds depth to our understanding of dinosaur evolution.

This carnivorous dinosaur had teeth that were a combination of serrated and non-serrated. Contents of meals found within the guts of fossil specimens suggest a diet of birds, lizards, early mammals, and even fish. It is possible that this was a nocturnal hunter due to the morphology of the eye, although its coloration suggests a more diurnal behavior.

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Interesting Points about Microraptor

The Microraptor in its Natural Habitat

The natural world of Microraptor was one of ancient forests and diverse ecosystems. The presence of long aerodynamic feathers on all four limbs suggests a creature adept at navigating its forested environment, possibly gliding from tree to tree. This adaptation would have been crucial for both hunting and evading predators.

Its capability for powered flight, or at the very least, sophisticated gliding, indicates a complex interaction with its environment. It likely had a significant role in the ecosystem, possibly influencing the population dynamics of its prey and competing with other small predators. The abundance of fossils suggests that it was a successful species and well-adapted to the challenges of its habitat.

In this fertile, ancient world, Microraptor would have been a common sight. It was a testament to the incredible adaptability and diversity of life during the Cretaceous Period. Its evolutionary relationship with birds, its unique four-winged structure, and its prevalence in the fossil record all contribute to a fascinating portrait of this small but significant dinosaur.

Contemporary Dinosaurs

Picture this feathery dynamo, no larger than a modern crow, navigating a world where size often meant survival. Among its contemporary Asian dinosaurs, the Microraptor held a unique position in its ability to glide as well as in the intricate web of relationships it navigated daily.

Take the Sinornithosaurus, roughly the same size as our main dinosaur. These two might have engaged in a delicate dance of competition and coexistence. The Sinornithosaurus prowled the underbrush, perhaps eyeing the same insects or small vertebrates. At the same time, our Microraptor took to the trees and used its aerial advantage to scout and swoop down on unsuspecting prey. Their interactions were a testament to nature’s balance, where one’s strength complements the other’s weakness.

Then there was the Psittacosaurus, a creature quite different from our feathered protagonist. Larger and bound to the ground, this beaked herbivore likely paid little mind to the Microraptor and focused on tender shoots and leaves. Yet, in this prehistoric tapestry, even the indifferent relationships painted a picture. The Microraptor, agile and opportunistic, might have used its distraction as a cover to avoid larger predators.

Speaking of predators, the Jeholosaurus and Yixianosaurus, though not direct threats to the swift Microraptor, added layers to its daily existence. These contemporaries, larger and imposing, might have posed a threat in moments of desperation. Our Microraptor, ever the survivor, would dart through the foliage, a shadow among shadows, always aware, always adapting.

Frequently Asked Questions

When was this dinosaur discovered?

Its initial discovery is unknown due to it being smuggled out of China in a fossil sale.

What does its name mean?

Its name has Greek and Latin origins and means “Small Thief.”

What type of diet did it have?

It was a carnivore that hunted small animals such as birds, lizards, early mammals, and even fish.

Where was it first found?

It was first found in the Jiufotang Formation, Chaoyang, Liaoning, China.

How did it move?

It moved on two legs and may have been capable of gliding or even powered flight.

What period did it live in?

It lived during the Early Cretaceous, around 125 to 113 MYA.


The information in this article is based on various sources, drawing on scientific research, fossil evidence, and expert analysis. The aim is to provide a comprehensive and accurate overview of the Microraptor. However, please be aware that our understanding of dinosaurs and their world is constantly evolving as new discoveries are made.

This article was last fact-checked: Joey Arboleda, 11-03-2023