The fossil of a dinosaur that lived in China 125 million years ago that was covered in feathers and had two sets of wings may have been the largest flying reptile of its kind, scientists said in a new study published on Tuesday.
The meat-eating creature, called Changyuraptor yangi, had exceptionally long tail feathers — at 1 foot in length they were the longest feathers of any dinosaur. It had feather-covered forelimbs akin to wings as well as legs covered in feathers in a way that gave the appearance of a second set of wings, and that may have allowed the creature to glide.
The Changyuraptor, however, is not considered a bird, but rather a very birdlike dinosaur. It measured a bit more than 4 feet long and weighed roughly 9 pounds.
If a person saw the Changyuraptor, the reaction likely would be: "Hey! That is a weird-looking bird," said paleontologist Alan Turner of Stony Brook University in New York, one of the researchers.
"So, think a midsized turkey with a very long tail," Turner added.
Scientists have identified a handful of these four-winged dinosaurs, known as microraptorines, and Changyuraptor is the largest. China has become a treasure trove for feathered dinosaur fossils; the Changyuraptor was unearthed in Liaoning province in the northeast.
Scientists say birds arose from small, feathered dinosaurs, and the crow-sized Archaeopteryx, which lived about 150 million years ago, is considered the earliest known bird. But many dinosaurs that lived before and after the Archaeopteryx had feathers and other birdlike characteristics.
Luis Chiappe, a paleontologist at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, who led the study, said Changyuraptor lived in a forested environment in a temperate climate, hunting birds, mammals, small reptiles and fish.
"Animals like Changyuraptor were probably not engaged in powered flight like modern birds. However, Changyuraptor and dinosaurs like it could flap their wings and certainly had large feathered surfaces on both their forelimbs and hind limbs," Turner said.
"So this does raise the possibility they could glide or 'fly' in a primitive sort of way. The way I like to think of it is: If you pushed them out of a tree, they'd fall pretty slowly," he added.
If Changyuraptor were able to become airborne, its long tail feathers may have helped reduce descent speed and enabled safe landings. "This helps explain how animals like Changyuraptor could engage in some form of aerial locomotion — flight, gliding, and/or controlled descents — despite their size," Turner said.
In birds today, feathers can serve multiple functions beyond flight, including display, species recognition and mating rituals. Turner said Changyuraptor's feathers also may have served multiple purposes.
The study was published in the journal Nature Communications.