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Scientists Discover Largest Four-Winged Dinosaur to Date

Recently discovered airborne dinosaur had incredibly long tail feathers that could have kept the animal from crash landings.

(Photo: Stephanie Abramowicz, Dinosaur Institute, NHM) (Photo: Stephanie Abramowicz, Dinosaur Institute, NHM)

By Michael Oxman

These feathers weren’t just beautiful to look at. Scientists have discovered a new kind of flying dinosaur with extremely long tail feathers, and its quite possible these feathers kept the animal from crashing.

Luis Chiappe of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County stated “I’ve worked for over 20 years in China, and I’ve never seen anything like this.” Chiappe is a paleontologist and a co-author of a study reporting the find. “It was absolutely stunning to see how perfectly preserved these feathers were and how long they were … essentially one-fourth the length of the animal.”

The new species had long feathers on its wings as well as its hind legs, making it effectively a “four-winged” dinosaurs. It also had sharp claws and large sharp teeth, suggesting it was carnivorous. Thought Its precise diet is undiscovered, fossils of similar dinosaurs have been recovered with birds and fish in their guts, Chiappe said.

The researchers named their new species Changyuraptor yangi– and name that translates to “long-feather raptor” and a Chinese financial supporter, Yangi.

What is still unknown is whether Changyuraptor actually flew in a manner that is similar to a modern-day bird, as Chiappe suspects, or simply glided. Either way, scientists were amazed to discover something so large that could take to the skies at a time when few animals could fly.

Changyuraptor was huge in many respects–measuring 4 feet long, which is 60% longer than the next-largest four-winged animal, commonly called the Microraptor, the scientists report in this week’s Nature Communications. Changyuraptor weighed a sizeable 9 pounds, the team estimates, whereas the Microraptor was closer to a seagull-sized at only 3 pounds or so. That long tail may have helped Changyuraptor orient itself and reduce its speed while descending, so it didn’t hurt itself once reaching the ground, Chiappe says.

An airborne dinosaur with such a enormous size “is not what you would expect,” says paleontologist David Hone of the University of Bristol, who was not a part of the new study. Researchers thought Microraptor “to be around the biggest and everything else to be comparable or smaller. Then you’ve got this new guy, and it’s really quite a lot bigger.”
Changyuraptor is the latest of several feathered dinosaurs with both a long bony tail and similar arrangement of tail feathers. This provided the animal an ability to either fly or glide, Hone says.

“They may well all be using the tail to do the same thing in the same way,” he says. And given the unchanging laws of aerodynamics,l that makes sense. “If you don’t have enough control, you smack into that tree branch or miss it entirely and plummet quickly into the ground. (If) you can slow down and steer … it can really make all the difference in the world.”