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New Four-Winged Dinosaur Built for Flight

Jul 15, 2014 01:46 PM EDT
Changyuraptor yangi
A newly discovered non-avian, four-winged dinosaur was an expert flier, according to scientists. Pictured: Fossil of Changyuraptor yangi.
(Photo : Stephanie Abramowicz, Dinosaur Institute, NHM)

A newly discovered non-avian, four-winged dinosaur was an expert flier, according to scientists.

The 125-million-year-old dinosaur, Changyuraptor yangi, is further evidence that flight preceded the origin of birds.

Based on a detailed fossil excavated in northeastern China, researchers determined that its long tail feathers measured four feet long - 60 percent longer than the next-biggest dinosaur of its kind, known as Microraptor. And it didn't just have feathers on its tail, but on its hind legs as well, making it one of only a handful of "four-winged" dinosaurs.

"I've worked for over 20 years in China, and I've never seen anything like this," paleontologist Luis Chiappe, of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, told USA Today.

However, though Changyuraptor clearly sported huge wings and a streamlined, aerodynamic body made for flight, scientists were unsure how this dinosaur managed to get off the ground.

"It is difficult to say, and controversial, whether an animal like Changyuraptor was able to take off from the ground or launch from a perch," project leader Chiappe told Discovery News. "We do know that they were very maneuverable animals and our study shows that they used their tail to slow down while they landed."

"At a foot in length, the amazing tail feathers of Changyuraptor are by far the longest of any feathered dinosaur," he added.

According to USA Today, it's unusual that a species of such massive size would be able to fly. Researchers expected 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," said paleontologist David Hone of the University of Bristol, who was not involved in the study.

Before such non-avian dinosaurs went extinct, some of them hunted birds. They also likely ate fish, swooping over bodies of water to catch their dinner. The Changyuraptor fossil indicates that it was a carnivore, given its sharp teeth and claw, although its exact diet is not known.

The dinosaur, named after researcher Yang Yandong and the Chinese words for "long-feathered raptor," is described in the latest issue of the journal Nature Communications.

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