Researchers have discovered a new predatory dinosaur with a big body, short arms, and multiple layers of large feathers. And it roamed Early Cretaceous China 125 million years ago.
The Liaoning Province of northeastern China is famous for its feathered dinosaur discoveries. In the last two decades, thousands of exceptionally preserved, downy-covered specimens have been uncovered here, and they work together to illustrate the evolutionary transition from carnivorous dinosaurs to birds.
A local farmer near Sihedang discovered the skeleton, which came complete with a skull, lower jaw, and even preserved integument. When Junchang Lü from the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences and Stephen Brusatte from the University of Edinburgh analyzed the fossils, they realized it was a previously unknown dromaeosaurid – one of the closest extinct relatives of birds.
The duo named it Zhenyuanlong suni. “Long” means “dragon” in Chinese, and the rest of the name honors Zhenyuan Sun, who secured the specimen for study. Zhenyuanlong was between 126 and 165 centimeters (around 5 feet) long, and its proportionally short forelimbs supported large, feathered wings. Their findings, published in Scientific Reports this week, suggests that the diversity of feathered dinosaurs is even higher than we thought.
The beautifully preserved skeleton of the new short-armed and winged feathered dinosaur Zhenyuanlong suni from the Early Cretaceous (ca. 125 million years ago) of China. The shaded areas are the integument. Junchang Lü
Being about a-meter-and-a-half long, Zhenyuanlong is one of the largest dinosaurs that’s been discovered with such a well-preserved set of bird-like wings and dense feathers on its tail. The feathers found on larger, previously described dinosaurs were simple filaments that resembled hair. The complex feathers of this new species are comprised of fine branches that stem from a central shaft.
Most Liaoning dromaeosaurids were small – between the size of a cat and a medium-sized dog – and they had long forelimbs with broad wings covered in feathers. The one exception is the two-meter-long (6.5-foot-long) Tianyuraptor, who also had comparatively shorter forelimbs but no preserved feathers.
Despite these bird-like wings, the researchers don’t think Zhenyuanlong could fly, at least not using the same muscle-driven flight we see in birds today. The purpose these wings served remains to be revealed. A close-up of the wing feathers is pictured to the right.
"This new dinosaur is one of the closest cousins of Velociraptor, but it looks just like a bird," Brusatte says in a statement. "It’s a dinosaur with huge wings made up of quill pen feathers, just like an eagle or a vulture. The movies have it wrong – this is what Velociraptor would have looked like too."
Images: Chuang Zhao (top), Junchang Lü (middle, bottom)