Flying dinosaur had four wings, exceptionally long feathers


Illustration of Changyuraptor yangi, a new feathered predatory fossil discovered in China sheds light on dinosaur flight. (S. Abramowicz/Courtesy of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County)

In the dinosaur kingdom, the raptor reigns as a pop-culture bogeyman. Although not as big as the T. Rex, the feathered creature had a mean set of teeth and claws. But there was at least one refuge from its tyranny: the air.

Now, however, scientists have discovered a fossil that lays waste to that pleasant fiction. This raptorial dinosaur named Chang- yuraptor yangi not only flew — it had four wings. And those wings were studded with the longest feathers of any known dinosaur, said lead researcher Luis Chiappe of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Chiappe said in an interview. “It is a stunning specimen and it was stunning to see the size of the feathers. This is the dinosaur with the longest known feathers — by far. There is nothing like this by a very good distance. The feathers were one-fourth the size of the animal.”

In the pantheon of hulking dinos, this one wasn’t on the larger side. Published in the scientific journal Nature Communications on Tuesday, the article by Chiappe and colleagues reported it was only about four feet long and weighed about nine pounds — about three times the weight of aseagull. But what it lacked in size, it made up for in importance, researchers said.

Classed as a “microraptorine,” its fossils “are essential for testing hypotheses explaining the origin and early evolution of avian flight,” the paper stated. “The lengthy feathered tail of the new fossil provides insight into the flight performance of microraptorines and how they may have maintained aerial competency at larger body sizes.”


An image of newly discovered dinosaur Changyuraptor with details of plumage appears on the right. Scientists described fossils of the strange Changyuraptor yangi dinosaur that lived in China 125 million years ago. The dinosaur, covered in feathers, looked like it had two sets of wings and may have been able to glide. (L. Chiappe/Dinosaur Institute/Dinosaur Institute of the Natural History Museum/Reuters)

This dinosaur’s flight and landings hinged on its tail. Animals of more substantial size fly faster, making landing a treacherous business. The Changyu — which means “long-feathered” in Chinese — handled this problem with a feathered tail “instrumental for decreasing descent speed and assuring a safe landing,” the study explained.

As Chiappe, who first glimpsed the bones in 2012 in Beijing, told Slate, such landings were similar to the “way you land in a plane.” Changyuraptors “needed to slow down and pitch their nose up. Otherwise, they would crash.”

The northeast Chinese region of Liaoning where the fossils were found is renowned for its exceptionally well-preserved fossils, the study said. Numerous feathered — but non-avian — dinos were found there, which “cemented the notion that birds evolved from theropod dinosaurs.”

Terrence McCoy is a foreign affairs writer at the Washington Post. He served in the U.S. Peace Corps in Cambodia and studied international politics at Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter here.
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