Fossil suggests flight was common among bird-like dinosaurs

Fossil suggests flight was common among bird-like dinosaurs


A new dinosaur fossil with extremely long feathers boosts a theory that flight was common among the types of dinosaurs that later evolved into birds, scientists say.

The flying predator, or raptor, had a long, feathered tail that biologists think was crucial for low­er­ing de­scent speed and as­sur­ing safe land­ings. A pa­per pub­lished in the jour­nal Na­ture Com­mu­nica­t­ions July 15 de­scribes the fos­sil, found by a team led by Nat­u­ral His­to­ry Mu­se­um of Los An­ge­les Coun­ty paleontologist Luis Chi­appe.

Illustration of the feath­ered dino­saur. (Credit: S. Abra­mo­wicz, Dino­saur Inst­i­tute, NHM) Illustration of the feath­ered dino­saur. (Credit: S. Abra­mo­wicz, Dino­saur Inst­i­tute, NHM)

“The new fos­sil doc­u­ments that di­no­saur flight was not lim­it­ed to very small an­i­mals but to di­no­saurs of more sub­stanti­al size,” he said, al­though “far more ev­i­dence is needed to un­der­stand the nu­anc­es of di­no­saur flight.”

The 125-million-year-old di­no­saur, named Chang­yu­rap­tor yan­gi, was found in north­east­ern Chi­na’s Liao­ning Prov­ince, which has seen a surge of dis­cov­er­ies in feath­ered di­no­saurs over the last dec­ade. The newly disco­vered, re­markably pre­served di­no­saur sports a full set of feath­ers over its whole body.

“At a foot in length, the amaz­ing tail feath­ers of Chang­yu­rap­tor are by far the longest of any feath­ered di­no­saur,” said Chi­appe. Anal­y­ses of the mi­cro­scop­ic bone struc­ture by Uni­vers­ity of Cape Town (South Af­ri­ca) sci­ent­ist Anusuya Chin­samy in­di­cat­ed that the rap­tor was a fully grown adult, at four feet in length (120 cm), the big­gest of all “four-winged” di­no­saurs.

Di­no­saurs such as Chang­yu­rap­tor are part of a line­age known as mi­cro­rap­tors, and called “four-winged” be­cause their long leg feath­ers look like a sec­ond set of wings. Re­search­ers be­lieve they probably could fly. “Nu­mer­ous fea­tures that we have long as­so­ci­at­ed with birds in fact evolved in di­no­saurs long be­fore the first birds ar­rived,” said co-author Al­an Turn­er of Stony Brook Uni­vers­ity in New York. “This in­cludes things such as hol­low bones, nest­ing be­hav­ior, feath­ers… and pos­sibly flight.”

How well these creatures used the sky as a thoroughfare has re­mained contro­versial. The new disco­very explains the role that the tail feath­ers played dur­ing flight con­trol. For larg­er fly­ers, safe land­ings are of par­tic­u­lar im­por­tance. “It makes sense that the larg­est mi­cro­rap­torines had es­pe­cially large tail feath­ers—they would have needed the ad­di­tion­al con­trol,” said Mi­chael Habib, a re­search­er at the Uni­vers­ity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia and a co-author of the pa­per.

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