By Will Dunham
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – 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.
The researchers on Thursday said the fast-running meat-eater was approximately 6 feet (1.8 meters) long & covered with simple hair-like feathers over much of its body, with large, quill-like feathers on its wings & long tail.
p>The largest-known dinosaur with wings, it lived approximately 125 million years ago during the Cretaceous Period. Considering its mouth full of sharp teeth & its overall oddness, University of Edinburgh paleontologist Steve Brusatte dubbed the dinosaur, named Zhenyuanlong suni, a “fluffy feathered poodle from hell.”
A member of a group of dinosaurs called raptors closely related to birds, it was a cousin of Velociraptor, although that dinosaur, featured inaccurately in the “Jurassic Park” films as much bigger than it was, lived approximately 40-50 million years later.
“Zhenyuanlong was a dinosaur that really looked like a bird,” said Brusatte, who collaborated with Chinese paleontologist Junchang LÃ¼. “You wouldn’t think of it differently than a turkey or an emu or a huge chicken.”
Steve Brusatte & Junchang Lu next to the skeleton of the new short-armed feathered dinosaur Zhenyu …
In their form & 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 huge raptor, & its arms are so short in proportion to its body, that I have a complex time believing that it could fly or glide or do anything in the air,” Brusatte said.
More likely, Brusatte said, Zhenyuanlong used its wings for display the way a peacock uses its tail feathers to attract mates & intimidate rivals. Another possibility is using the wings to brood eggs in the nest, Brusatte said.
Brusatte said finding a dinosaur with traits like Zhenyuanlong’s raises questions approximately why wings evolved in the first place.
“Did they evolve specifically for flight? In that case, Zhenyuanlong perhaps descended from a flying ancestor & that’s why it still has wings. Or, alternatively, did wings first evolve for display or egg brooding or some other type of function, & then only in some dinosaurs were they after co-opted into airfoils for gliding & flying?”
Birds evolved from small feathered dinosaurs. The oldest-known bird, crow-sized Archaeopteryx, lived approximately 150 million years ago.
The research was published in the journal Scientific Reports.
(Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Sandra Maler)