City scientists unearth feathered dinosaur

An artist's impression of Zhenyuanlong suni
An artist's impression of Zhenyuanlong suni
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A NEWLY identified species of feathered dinosaur is the largest ever discovered to have a well-preserved set of bird-like wings, city scientists believe.

Paleontologists working in China unearthed the fossil remains of the winged 
dinosaur – a close cousin of the velociraptor made famous by the Jurassic Park films.

Dr Steve Brusatte and Prof Junchang Lu, right, with the Chinese fossil

Dr Steve Brusatte and Prof Junchang Lu, right, with the Chinese fossil

The near-complete skeleton, which is described as being remarkably well preserved, was studied by scientists from Edinburgh University and the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences.

The fossil reveals dense feathers covered the dinosaur’s wings and tail, and the team said larger feathered dinosaurs have been identified before but none have possessed such complex wings.

Belonging to a family of feathered carnivores that was widespread during the Cretaceous period, the species lived around 125 million years ago.

Its wings were very short compared with other dinosaurs in the same family and consisted of multiple layers of large feathers, researchers said.

Named Zhenyuanlong suni, the species grew to more than 5ft in length but probably could not fly, at least not using the same type of powerful muscle-driven flight as modern birds, according to the team who found that the feathers were complex structures made up of fine branches stemming from a central shaft.

Dr Steve Brusatte, of the university’s School of 
Geosciences, who co-authored the study, said: “This new dinosaur is one of the closest cousins of velociraptor, but it looks just like a bird.

“It’s a dinosaur with huge wings made up of quill pen feathers, just like an eagle or a vulture. The movies have it wrong – this is what 
velociraptor would have looked like, too.”

Scientists have known for some time that many species of dinosaur had feathers, but most of these were covered with simple filaments that looked more like hair than modern bird feathers.

This latest discovery suggests winged dinosaurs with larger and more complex feathers were more diverse than previously thought. The researchers said it is unclear what function the short wings served but believe they might have evolved from ancestors who could fly and used their wings solely for display purposes – in a similar way to how peacocks use their colourful tails.

Professor Junchang Lu, of the Institute of Geology, Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences, who led the study, said: “The western part of Liaoning Province in China is one of the most famous places in the world for finding dinosaurs.

“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.”

The study is published in the journal Scientific Reports, with the research supported by Natural Science Foundation of China, the European Commission, and the US National Science Foundation.

newsen@edinburghnews.com