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
“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 only a handful of “four-winged” dinosaurs. It also had big, sharp teeth and sharp 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-sized Microraptor was only 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. Either way, scientists were surprised to find something so large that could take to the skies so early in the history of flying creatures.
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.
Changyuraptor is the latest of several feathered dinosaurs with a long bony tail, a similar arrangement of tail feathers and some ability to either fly or glide, Hone says.
“They may well all be using the tail to do the same thing in the same way,” he says. And that makes sense, given the ruthless laws of aerodynamics. “If you don’t have enough control, you smack into that tree branch or miss it entirely and plummet quickly into the ground. (If) you can slow down and steer … it can really make all the difference in the world.”.. see more