A new non-avian dinosaur not only looked like a jet but also was an expert flier.
The 125-million-year-old dinosaur, Changyuraptor yangi, strengthens the evidence that flight preceded the origin of birds. The dino, named after researcher Yang Yandong and the Chinese words for "long-feathered raptor," is described in a study published in the latest issue of Nature Communications.
It's clear that this dinosaur, which sported big wings and a streamlined, aerodynamic body, could fly. The question remains: How did the 4-foot-long animal 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 Luis 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," added Chiappe, a paleontologist at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.
Chiappe and an international team found the dinosaur in the Liaoning Province of northeastern China. Based on multiple recent discoveries there, this site was a hotbed of dino activity back in the Cretaceous, and many of the dinosaurs had feathers.
Changyuraptor looks as if it had four wings instead of the usual two, due to long feathers that jutted out from its legs. Such "four-winged" dinosaurs belonged to a group known as "microraptorine," or tiny raptors.
Before non-avian dinosaurs went extinct, some of them hunted birds. They also likely ate fish, swooping over bodies of water to catch their dinner. Such moves would have been all the more impressive considering that Changyuraptor weighed 9 pounds. (By comparison, seagulls typically weigh only about 1.5 pounds.)
"The new fossil documents that dinosaur flight was not limited to very small animals, but to dinosaurs of more substantial size," Chiappe said.
Archaeopteryx, the iconic early bird, lived approximately 150 million years ago. Birds, therefore, were around for just 25 million years before Changyuraptor emerged -- a drop in the proverbial geologic bucket.
Changyuraptor's precise evolutionary relationship to birds is unclear at the moment, aside from the fact that it appears to have enjoyed eating them.
"Whether the flight capabilities of Changyuraptor and its kin evolved independently to the flight capabilities of birds is controversial," Chiappe said. "Most likely, some of the aerodynamic features we see in Changyuraptor -- like the large forewings -- are the result of the same evolutionary event."
Chiappe agrees with other studies concluding that pre- or proto-feathers first evolved for thermoregulation. Feathers then appear to have evolved into larger structures that could have served more than one purpose.
The new dinosaur's color remains unknown at present, but the dino might have flashed striking, multiple colors. Feathers could then have been used during mating displays as well as for flight.
The plane-resembling Changyuraptor's tail feathers therefore might have impressed the flier's potential mates, in addition to helping decrease the speed of descent to ensure safe landings.
"It makes sense that the largest microraptorines had especially large tail feathers," said Michael Habib, a researcher at the University of Southern California. "They would have needed the additional control."