July 21, 2014
We have come a long way in our understanding and knowledge of dinosaurs since I was a kid. Even just in the last few years, there has been a surge of new information brought to light about our planet’s previous tenants. Take the fact that some dinosaurs had feathers, for example. When I was younger, all we knew about was the Archaeopteryx, which was long held as the missing link between ancient dinosaurs and our modern birds. It had feathers, sure, but also a full set of teeth, clawed fingers on its wings that were still able to be used for grasping things, and a questionable ability to fly. For the longest time, we believed this fossil to be nearly one-of-a-kind, a unique look at how our modern birds may have come to be.
Since then, several other feathered dinosaur fossils have been discovered, including – most recently – the Changyuraptor yangi that was discovered in the Liaoning Province of northeastern China, which has been seeing a surge of new fossil discoveries over the last few years, by an international team led by Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHM) paleontologist Dr. Luis Chiappe. Estimated at 125-million years old, this animal clearly sported feathers that covered its entire body and extra-long tail feathers and feathers on its legs that gives it the appearance of having four wings rather than just two, a trait associated with all microraptorine dinosaurs. Dr. Anusuya Chinsamy, a scientist from the University of Cape Town (South Africa) analyzed the fossil and came to the conclusion that the nine pound, four-foot long Changyuraptor is the largest microraptorine dinosaur every discovered. These winged arms and legs are what have led researchers to believe that these microraptorine dinosaurs were, in fact, capable of flying, as they possessed numerous features that have been long attributed to birds such as having hollow bones, showing evidence of nesting behavior, feathers, and most notably, the potential for flight.
Even so, there is still a huge amount of speculation as to how well these creatures could traverse the sky. The the case of the Changyuraptor, it is believed that those extra-long tail feathers were instrumental in allowing the creature to execute fine control while flying, particularly in making safe landings. Dr. Michale Habib, a researcher at the University of Southern California and co-author of the paper detailing the discovery and analysis of the Changyuraptor noted, “It makes sense that the largest microraptorines had especially large tail feathers – they would have needed the additional control.” Its discovery has provided a great deal of evidence to naysayers about the likelihood of dinosaurs being able to take to the skies like the birds of today.
According to Dr. Chiappe, “The new fossil documents that dinosaur flight was not limited to very small animals but to dinosaurs of more substantial size. Clearly far more evidence is needed to understand the nuances of dinosaur flight, but Changyuraptor is a major leap in the right direction.” For the longest time, it was the previously mentioned Archaeopteryx that was said to be the most important dinosaur fossil ever discovered, but it looks like the Changyuraptor may give it a run for its money.
Image Credit: S. Abramowicz, Dinosaur Institute, NHM