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Fossil suggests flight was common among bird-like dinosaurs

July 17, 2014
Courtesy of Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County
and World Science staff

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)


“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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A new 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. “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 cloaking its entire 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 C. yangi 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.