A non-avian dinosaur with exceptionally long feathers has been discovered in China. Called Changyuraptor yangi, the 125 million-year-old flying raptor measured nearly four feet long, making it the largest theropod that ever took to the air.
Changyuraptor belonged to a group of predatory feathered dinosaurs called Microraptorines, a group which included several small four-winged species. They're called "four-winged" not because they had four wings, but on account of the exceptionally long feathers on their hind legs.
It's important to note that pterosaurs were not dinosaurs. As science writer Brian Switek has noted, "Calling a pterosaur a dinosaur is an error of the same order of magnitude as saying that our species is a marsupial." Both dinosaurs and pterosaurs have their own unique evolutionary history.
The discovery of this Early Cretaceous raptor in the Liaoning Province of northeastern China shows that these creatures were flying long before birds split off from dinosaurs. With tail feathers that are nearly a foot long (30 cm) — about 30% the total length of the skeleton — the new fossil contains the longest known feathers for any non-avian dinosaur. What's more, it's the largest known theropod with long feathers attached to the lower hind limbs. And like modern birds, this animal was cloaked entirely in feathers.
Analysis of Changyuraptor's bone microstructure shows that the raptor was a fully grown adult, weighing about nine pounds. Its sharp steak-knife-like serrated teeth show it was a predator, likely feasting on bird, fish remains, small mammals, and lizards. It lived in what was a temperate forest of mostly conifers, with an undergrowth of ferms and some of the planet's first flowering plants.
Photo by L. Chiappe, Dinosaur Institute, NHM.
Lead paleontologist Luis Chiappe and his team believe these unique features were instrumental for decreasing descent speed and assuring safe landings; the long tail worked like an elevator and flaps of an aircraft, helping the dinosaur to control up and down pitch movements. Chiappe says this raptor is much bigger than previous dinosaurs capable of flight, so it extends our understanding of what these animals were capable of doing.
"There's now plenty of evidence to show that birds were descended from dinosaurs, and we're also learning that these dinosaurs were also capable of flight," he noted.
The timing of this study is interesting; it arrives about a week after the announcement of the discovery of the largest bird to have ever flown.
Read the entire scientific study at Nature Communications.
Image: Stephanie Abramowicz/Dinosaur Institute NHM.