In the dinosaur kingdom, the raptor reigns as a pop-culture bogeyman. While 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 new fossil that lays waste to that pleasant fiction. This new raptorial dinosaur named Changyuraptor yangi not only flew — it had four wings. And those wings were studded with the longest feathers any dinosaur has ever worn, said lead researcher Luis Chiappe of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he told The Washington Post. “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.” Chiappe paused for a moment. “It’s just wonderful,” he said.
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 — approximately three times the weight of your everyday seagull. 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.”
Changyuraptor with (right) details of plumage. New Feathered Predatory Fossil Sheds Light on Dinosaur Flight has been discovered in China. A “Four-Winged” Fossil Helps Explain How Larger-Bodied Dinosaurs Took to the Air. (Luis Chiappe/ Courtesy of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County)
Changyuraptor fossil, left, with details of plumage, right. (Luis Chiappe/ Courtesy of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County)
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.”
It’s a matter of debate whether the creature glided or flapped. Chiappe’s money is on the latter. “Everyone agrees they were capable of becoming airborne somehow — and I think they took off from the ground flapping,” he said. “They couldn’t have been able to climb trees like that.”
The northeast Chinese region of Liaoning where the fossils were found is a region 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.”
“This was an unexpected discovery,” Chiappe told The Post. “But it plays a role in the early junction in the evolution of flight.”
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.