Understanding the aerodynamic performance of feathered, non-avialan dinosaurs is critical to reconstructing the evolution of bird flight. Here we show that the Early Cretaceous five-winged paravian Microraptor is most stable when gliding at high-lift coefficients (low lift/drag ratios). Wind tunnel experiments and flight simulations show that sustaining a high-lift coefficient at the expense of high drag would have been the most efficient strategy for Microraptor when gliding from, and between, low elevations. Analyses also demonstrate that anatomically plausible changes in wing configuration and leg position would have made little difference to aerodynamic performance. Significant to the evolution of flight, we show that Microraptor did not require a sophisticated, 'modern' wing morphology to undertake effective glides. This is congruent with the fossil record and also with the hypothesis that symmetric 'flight' feathers first evolved in dinosaurs for non-aerodynamic functions, later being adapted to form lifting surfaces.
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