Sunday, July 20, 2014

Paleontologists this week announced the discovery of a large "four-winged" dinosaur named Changyuraptor!! Named after the northeastern province of China where the exceptionally well-preserved fossil was discovered, Changyuraptor was quite big -- four feet long and nine pounds, making it by far the largest of the nonavian dinosaurs. Changyuraptor belongs to a class of dinosaur called "microraptor", and had much the same body design of big raptors like Deinonychus and Velociraptor. But Changyuraptor, which lived 125 million years ago, was much bigger than other microraptors, which generally weighed about two pounds.

All raptors, we now know today, had feather-like coverings all over their bodies. They were not the scaly reptiles of Jurassic Park. But while big raptors were covered in something like a feather boa (flimsy and insubstantial), microraptors had more clearly-developed, much more flying feather-like coverings. Changyuraptor was one of these. Both its front and hind legs were covered in long, stiff feathers that resembled wings. While the front legs clearly allowed the creature to glide, and perhaps fly short distances, it's unclear whether the rear legs did so.

Most astonishly about Changyuraptor was its long, feathery tail. The tail feathers, which were almost a foot long, helped stabilize the microraptor in flight. They also helped Changyuraptor reduce its speed as it approached the ground and control the pitch of the animal (that is, adjust its nose up or down). Instead of crash-landing and smashing its face into the ground, Changyuraptor could land on its hind legs, and it could use those hind legs to land right on top of prey!

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