Paleontologists have discovered and identified the remains of a new feathered dinosaur species that is the largest creature of its kind ever found to have a well-preserved set of bird-like wings, according to research published Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports.
The Velociraptor cousin was discovered in China and has been given the name Zhenyuanlong suni. The authors of the new study believe that it lived during the Cretaceous Period, approximately 125 million years ago, and was part of a family of feathered carnivores that was widespread during this part of history – (and it included the Velocitraptor of Jurrassic Park fame).
Found on Chinese farm
Dr. Stephen Brusatte from the University of Edinburgh School of GeoSciences and his fellow investigators reported that the dinosaur’s wings were short compared to other members of this family and were comprised of several layers of large feathers. The creature’s feathers were found to be complex structures made of a central shaft and several fine branches.
While this is not the first large feathered dinosaur to be identified, it’s the first to have complex wings made up of quill pen-like feathers, the researchers said. The discovery appears to indicate that winged dinosaurs with large, complex feathers were more diverse than previously believed.
The near-complete remains of the animal, which were described as remarkably well preserved, were studied by Dr. Brusatte and colleagues from the University of Edinburgh and the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences after being donated to a museum by the man who found it.
“I wish I could say that I found this fossil myself. It would have been the highlight of my career! But like nearly all fossils of feathered dinosaurs from China, this one was found by a farmer out working his land,” Dr. Brusatte explained to redOrbit via email. “Thankfully, the farmer realized the importance of the specimen and donated it to the Jinzhou Paleontological Museum, one of China’s great museums, which has thousands of fossils… from northeastern China.”
New dinosaur species a snapshot of ‘evolution in action’
The fossils reveal that Zhenyuanlong suni had dense feathers covering its wings and tail, and that it grew to more than five feet in length. Even though it had bird like wings, it most likely was not able to fly, and it is unclear just what purpose its wings served. It may have has ancestors capable of flight, and maintained its wings solely for display purposes like a peacock’s tail.
“When you look at this fossil you see evolution in action. This is a dinosaur that is on the cusp of becoming a bird,” Dr. Brusatte told redOrbit. “If you saw Zhenyuanlong alive, I don’t think you’d made any distinction between it and, say, a turkey or a vulture or an eagle or any other type of fairly large bird. It is so well preserved that we can see the feathers on much of the body.”
“What is really interesting about that is this is the largest dinosaur that we know of that had wings, and it also has fairly short arms as far as these advanced, bird-like, raptor dinosaurs go,” he added. “So it is a fairly large dinosaur with short arms, but it STILL has wings that look just like those of living birds. That raises a really big mystery: why would such an animal have wings? It probably wasn’t flying: it was too big and its arms too short. So maybe it used them for display, or for protecting its eggs in the nest, or something else. And maybe that means that wings didn’t even initially evolve for flight, but for another function!”
Finally, Dr. Brusatte explained that even though the new feathered species is a cousin to the Velociraptor, people shouldn’t be surprised that it looks nothing like the dinosaurs featured in the Jurassic Park films – because those dinosaurs look nothing like real-life Velociraptors. Aw man! While the movies depict them as “scaly, drab-colored monsters,” he explained that actual Velociraptors would have had feathers and wings and resembled “a poodle-sized killer bird.”
(Image credit: Chuang Zhao)