Sunday, July 27, 2014

Changyuraptor: Prehistoric Animal of the Week

Earlier this month, a newly discovered genus of dinosaur was discovered with long, beautifully preserved feathers.  Check out Changyuraptor yangiChangyuraptor was a meat-eating dinosaur, related to Velociraptor and Deinonychus, that lived during the Early Cretaceous period, 125 million years ago, in what is now China.  It measured about four feet long from snout to tail, roughly the same size as a large hawk. (Remember, about half of that length is tail.)  The genus, Changyuraptor, translates to "long feathered hunter" because some of the tail feathers from this animal were a foot in length, longest discovered of any non-avian dinosaur.

A gliding Changyuraptor drops in on a sleeping Microraptor.  Reconstruction by Christopher DiPiazza.
Changyuraptor is fascinating not only because it was found with feathers intact, but because of the fact that it also had long primary feathers on its legs!  In a sense this dinosaur had "four wings" and may have used them all to help it glide or parachute down from trees.  Changyuraptor wasn't the first dinosaur to be discovered with hind wings, however.  The first was the closely related, and much smaller, Microraptor.  The lesser related, and older, Anchiornis also had long feathers on its legs and feet.

Fossil of Changyuraptor yangi.  Check out those feathers! 

Despite its appearance, Changyuraptor probably couldn't fly.  It's arms and torso just don't appear to be designed for it.  It can, however, help scientists figure out the origins of flight in modern birds.  It is possible that dinosaurs like Changyuraptor may represent an evolutionary offshoot in the family tree near the dinosaurs that would eventually give rise to the flying birds we see around us today.  Maybe four wings was overkill?

Am I the only one who realized that comedian, Demetri Martin actually thought up of four-winged dinosaurs completely independently of their actual scientific discoveries?  In one of his famous stand up routines he invents an animal called a "double hawk" that had four wings coincidentally in a very similar (if not sort of crudely drawn) arrangement as that of dinosaurs like Changyuraptor!

Illustration of the double hawk by Demetri Martin.  Possible example of convergent evolution?

That's all for this week!  As always feel free to comment below or on our facebook page!


Gang Han, Luis M. Chiappe, Shu-An Ji, Michael Habib, Alan H. Turner, Anusuya Chinsamy, Xueling Liu & Lizhuo Han (15 July 2014). "A new raptorial dinosaur with exceptionally long feathering provides insights into dromaeosaurid flight performance". Nature Communications. 5, Article number: 4382. doi:10.1038/ncomms5382.

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