The remains of a prehistoric feathered creature with huge wings, talons and a mouthful of razor-sharp teeth could help scientists better understand how birds descended from dinosaurs.
The newly identified species - called Zhenyuanlong suni - is the largest dinosaur ever found with a well-preserved set of bird-like wings. Believed to have lived during the Cretaceous Period around 125 million years ago, the dinosaur thrived in what is now China and probably died as a result of a volcanic eruption.
The fossil was found by a farmer in northeastern China and eventually made its way into the hands of Junchang Lu, one of China's top dinosaur hunters from the Institute of Geology. Lu then called in the University of Edinburgh's Stephen Brusatte to help identify it. The two had teamed up last year in the discovery of new species of long-snouted tyrannosaur, nicknamed Pinocchio rex.
"I was blown away, really," Brusatte told CBS News. He and Lu co-authored a study about the find that was published Thursday in Scientific Reports.
"It looks like a work of art, this fossil, because the preservation is so good," he said. "The reason you get feathers and the reason you get a skeleton preserved like that with all these bones together is you have these dinosaurs living along lakes and then these lakes were buried by volcanoes occasionally. So, you had dinosaurs preserved almost Pompeii-style going about their daily business."
Finding a dinosaur with feathers is nothing new, especially in China, although this specimen is unusually large and well preserved. There have been hundreds, if not thousands, of fossils unearthed since the 1990s in China, which have helped firm up the theory that birds evolved from dinosaurs.
The characteristic features of birds are believed to have evolved slowly about 150 million years ago, and such things as wings and feathers developed over tens of millions of years.
But there remain lingering questions about the origins of birds, which Brusatte said he hoped the fossil of Zhenyuanlong suni might help answer. For example, the new discovery "lived later than flight evolved and birds evolved, so it wasn't any direct ancestor." Instead, it was more like a cousin "that persisted later in time."
A close cousin of the Velociraptor (made famous in the Jurassic Park movies), Zhenyuanlong suni grew to about 5 feet in length. It had a complex set of wings covered with colorful quill-pen-like feathers. Unlike like the filament-like feathers of many species of dinosaurs, these looked like something could be found on a modern-day bird like a pheasant or peacock.
"It's a pretty unusual type of dinosaur," Brusatte said. "It's so bird-like. It really looks like a bird and it is fairly big with short arms and it had wings. That was something we had never seen before. It's the biggest dinosaur we know of that had proper wings and also the first time we had found a dinosaur with short arms with wings as well. So, there is a whole lot of mystery about this guy."
The researchers said it was unclear what function the wings served, although they doubt the creature - which measured about 5 feet, 4 inches long - was able to fly with them. Rather, it might have used the wings for display purposes to attract a mate or even to help protect a nest from predators, much like ostriches do.
"I don't think an animal of that size with arms that short was flying or gliding or doing anything in the air," Brusatte said. "It's possible but highly unlikely. The wings were big and its arms are so short. You look at birds that fly and they have long arms. Most other dinosaurs that had feathers had really long arms. So, it would be hard to get a lot of lift with arms of that size."
Brusatte said Zhenyuanlong suni could also help scientists get a better idea of how wings in general evolved on birds.
"Whether it evolved from an animal that could fly but kept its wings because they were still useful or, alternatively, maybe wings didn't evolve for flight in the first place," he said. "Maybe they evolved for display or for protecting eggs and it was only later, in some dinosaurs, that they became co-opted as a structure that would allow these dinosaurs to fly. We don't have a good answer to that question."
And with such a good specimen, Brusatte said this could give scientists a better idea of what Velociraptor really looked like. Until now, scientists have only recovered the bones of Velociraptor, not its muscle, skin or feathers.
"A real Velociraptor wasn't what was shown in 'Jurassic Park' or 'Jurassic World,' some big reptile-looking creature with scales and green skin," he said. "A real Velociraptor would have been a bit smaller and covered with feathers, had wings and basically looked like a bird."
The latest discovery also could help shed some light on the dinosaur family that Zhenyuanlong suni belongs to, called Liaoning dromaeosaurids - demonstrating that these species with both long and short arms coexisted in the Early Cretaceous.
This family also includes Changyuraptor, Graciliraptor, Microraptor, Sinornithosaurus and Tianyuraptor. The new species is similar to Tiayuraptor in size but bigger than the rest of the family members, which were about the size of a house cat.
"The western part of Liaoning Province in China is one of the most famous places in the world for finding dinosaurs," Lu said. "The first feathered dinosaurs were found here and now our discovery of Zhenyuanlong indicates that there is an even higher diversity of feathered dinosaurs than we thought. It's amazing that new feathered dinosaurs are still being found."
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