Raptors, with their sickle killer claws and incredible agility, are understandably one of the most well-known types of dinosaur. There were more varieties than just Velociraptor back in the day, however – and besides, these fearsome famous beasts were perhaps no larger than a turkey.
If you want to strike fear into the hearts of your enemies, go back in time and steal a megaraptor, some of which were 8 meters (26 feet) from head to tail, and had sickle claws 30 centimeters (12 inches) in length.
As revealed by a new study in the journal Vertebrata PalAsiatica, you could also get raptors that were small enough to be cradled in your arms like a strange feathered lizard baby.
Uncovered by researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the newly minted Zhongjianosaurus yangi may be one of the smallest non-avian dinosaurs ever discovered. It weighed just 310 grams (11 ounces) and was just 70 centimeters (28 inches) long from snout to tail. Based on its bone growth, it was clearly an adult, not a juvenile.
Possessing some considerable levels of plumage, it actually had four wings and a feathered tail. This means that it could either glide or, perhaps, fly. When it was grounded, it walked on extremely wiry stilt-like legs.
All in all, the researchers consider it to be within the aptly named “Microraptorinae” evolutionary group.
A skeletal reconstruction of the new wee raptor. Xing & Zi-Chuan/Vertebrata PalAsiatica
Dug up from an Early Cretaceous geological deposit in Liaoning in northeast China, it lived around 125 million years ago. During this time, flowering plants began to evolve and proliferate across the land, and Spinosaurus, a terrifying apex predator, dominated the shallow waterways.
This particular raptor comes from the incredibly biodiverse paleoecosystem known as the Jehol biota, which includes everything living in the region from 133 to 120 million years ago. Innumerous dinosaur fossils, including a huge range of raptors, have been excavated that belong to this group, along with a cornucopia of flowers, mammalian ancestors, pterosaurs, and amphibians.
Back then, the environment was covered in trees, wetlands, and lakes, and things were a little more humid. This new microraptor probably chose to live in treetops. It was omnivorous, meaning that it spent its time feasting on a mixture of small animals, fish, fruit, and insects.
It coexisted with plenty of other dromaeosaurids, the overarching family of feathered, two-legged dinosaurs. The researchers make an analogy to Darwin’s Galapagos finches, which all evolved slightly different feeding apparatuses in the same environment; this particular raptor probably stuck to certain types of food while letting its more sizeable cousins predate on larger servings of food.
These microraptors ultimately died out long before T. rex roamed the world 57 million years later – but their lineage survives today in the world’s incredible predatory birds.