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.”
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.”