News Column

Following the trail of a four-winged jumbo dinosaur

July 15, 2014

By Traci Watson, Special for USA TODAY



These fine feathers weren't just for show. Scientists have discovered a new kind of airborne dinosaur with extraordinarily long tail feathers that could have helped save the animal from crash landings.

An exquisitely detailed fossil excavated in northeastern China shows that the dinosaur's tail feathers measured a full foot in length. More than 20 dinosaurs are thought to have sported plumage, but none boasted feathers as long as those of the new fossil, which dates back 125 million years. The next-longest dinosaur feathers are less than 9 inches long.

"I've worked for over 20 years in China, and I've never seen anything like this," says Luis Chiappe of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, a paleontologist and a co-author of a study reporting the find. "It was absolutely stunning to see how perfectly preserved these feathers were and how long they were essentially one-fourth the length of the animal."

The new species had long feathers not just on its wings but also on its hind legs, making it one of a handful of "four-winged" dinosaurs. It also had big, sharp teeth and claws, indicating it was carnivorous. Its exact diet is unknown, but fossils of similar dinosaurs have been found with fish and birds in their guts, Chiappe said. The researchers named their new species Changyuraptor yangi. The first part of its name means "long-feather raptor," and the second part honors a Chinese financial supporter.

Everything about Changyuraptor was big, not just its tail feathers. It measured more than 4 feet long, which is 60% longer than the next-biggest four-winged dinosaur, known as Microraptor, the scientists report in this week's Nature Communications. Changyuraptor weighed a hefty 9 pounds, the team estimates, whereas the seagull-size Microraptor was 3 pounds or so.

It's not clear whether Changyuraptor actually flew under its own power, as Chiappe suspects on the basis of its anatomy, or just glided.

An airborne dinosaur on such a massive scale "is not what you would expect," says paleontologist David Hone of the University of Bristol, who was not connected to the new study. Researchers expected Microraptor "to be around the biggest and everything else to be comparable or smaller. Then you've got this new guy, and it's really quite a lot bigger."

A bigger dinosaur launching itself into the air means bigger flight-control problems. That long tail may have helped Changyuraptor orient itself and reduce its speed during descents so it didn't injure itself when it landed, Chiappe says.

"If you don't have enough control, you smack into that tree branch or miss it entirely and plummet quickly into the ground," Hone says. "(If) you can slow down and steer it can really make all the difference in the world."


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Source: USA Today


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