Illustration showing how the newly discovered short-winged and feathered dinosaur Zhenyuanlong suni may have looked like when it roamed China 125 million years ago. Image: Reuters/Chuang Zhao/University of Edinburgh
Scientists have unearthed a spectacularly preserved, nearly complete fossil in northeastern China of a feathered dinosaur with wings like those of a bird, although they doubt the strange creature could fly.
Researchers say the fast-running meat-eater was about 1.8m long and covered with simple hair-like feathers over much of its body, with large, quill-like feathers on its wings and long tail.
The largest-known dinosaur with wings, it lived about 125 million years ago during the Cretaceous Period. Considering its mouth full of sharp teeth and its overall oddness, University of Edinburgh paleontologist Steve Brusatte dubbed the dinosaur, named Zhenyuanlong suni, a “fluffy feathered poodle from hell.”
Published in Scientific Reports, the research describes the “poodle from hell” as a member of a group of dinosaurs called raptors that are closely related to birds. That makes Zhenyuanlong a cousin of Velociraptor, although that dinosaur, featured inaccurately in the Jurassic Park films as much bigger than it was, lived about 40-50 million years later.
“Zhenyuanlong was a dinosaur that really looked like a bird,” says Brusatte, who collaborated with Chinese paleontologist Junchang Lü. “You wouldn’t think of it differently than a turkey or an emu or a big chicken.”
In their form and shape, its wings looked like those of a modern bird like an eagle or vulture. “If you saw this wing on its own, you would probably think that Zhenyuanlong could fly. But it’s a fairly big raptor, and its arms are so short in proportion to its body, that I have a hard time believing that it could fly or glide or do anything in the air,” says Brusatte.
More likely, he says, Zhenyuanlong used its wings for display the way a peacock uses its tail feathers to attract mates and intimidate rivals. Another possibility is using the wings to brood eggs in the nest.
Brusatte says finding a dinosaur with traits like Zhenyuanlong’s raises questions about why wings evolved in the first place.
“Did they evolve specifically for flight? In that case, Zhenyuanlong perhaps descended from a flying ancestor and that’s why it still has wings. Or, alternatively, did wings first evolve for display or egg brooding or some other type of function, and then only in some dinosaurs were they later co-opted into airfoils for gliding and flying?”
Birds evolved from small feathered dinosaurs. The oldest-known bird, crow-sized Archaeopteryx, lived about 150 million years ago. – Reuters/Will Dunham