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Published: Tuesday July 22, 2014 MYT 9:30:00 PM
Updated: Tuesday July 22, 2014 MYT 12:50:11 PM

Biggest four-winged feathered dinosaur found in China

It had ‘four wings’ and extra-long feathers but this turkey-sized dinosaur flew no better than a chicken.

This creature that lived in China 125 million years ago was certainly strange-looking. Called Changyuraptor yangi, not only did it have feather-covered forelimbs akin to wings as well as legs covered in feathers, its  tail feathers were exceptionally long — up to 30cm in length. Las Vegas showgirls would've killed to have them on their headdresses. 

Despite having feathers, Changyuraptor, which measured a bit more than 1.3m and weighed roughly 4kg, is not a bird but rather a very bird-like dinosaur. If a person saw Changyuraptor, the reaction likely would be: “Hey! That is a weird-looking bird,” according to paleontologist Alan Turner of Stony Brook University in New York, one of the researchers. “So, think a mid-sized turkey with a very long tail,” Turner added.

Mid-sized turkey: Since cameras didn't exist 125 million years ago, here are two different artistic depictions of Changyuraptor yangli, the biggest bird-like dinosaur discovered so far. The feathers on its arms as well as its legs give the dinosaur the appearance of having two sets of wings. Despite the feathers, scientists think it was probably better at gliding than flying. The human silhouette below gives an idea of how big the animal was.

Scientists have so far identified a handful of these ‘four-winged’ dinosaurs, known as microraptorines, and Changyuraptor is the largest. Birds arose from small, feathered dinosaurs. Crow-sized Archaeopteryx, which lived about 150 million years ago, is considered the earliest known bird. But many dinosaurs before and after that had feathers and other bird-like characteristics.

“Changyuraptor is very, very similar to Archaeopteryx and other primitive birds. So are many other dinosaurs like Anchiornis and Pedopenna. But they have some traits that birds lack, and lack some traits that birds have,” Turner added.

Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County paleontologist Luis Chiappe, who led the study published in the journal Nature Communications, 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,” Turner added.

Feathers and bones: The fossil of Changyuraptor yangli that was unearthed in Liaoning Province in northeastern, clearly showing its plumage. While Changyuraptor itself was not a bird, scientists are convinced from studying fossils of primitive birds and bird-like dinosaurs that birds evolved from dinosaurs. 

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 added.

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.

Meanwhile, China has become a treasure trove for feathered dinosaur fossils. Changyuraptor was unearthed in Liaoning Province in northeastern China. The generic name of the dinosaur combines the Chinese words for 'long feather', chang yu, with Latin raptor, meaning 'robber' or 'seizer'. Its specific name honours researcher Professor Yang Yandong. — Reuters

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle, Features, Science, Paleontology, Animals, Dinosaur, feathered dinosaur, four-winged dinosaur, bird-like dinosaur, Changyuraptor yangi, microraptorines, biggest, fossil, China

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