WASHINGTON (Reuters) – An exquisite fossil of a ferocious Chinese dinosaur nicknamed "dancing dragon" who lived 120 million years ago – an older cousin of Velociraptor – is showing scientists that feathers grew differently in dinosaurs and birds .
An artist's depiction of the newly discovered Chinese feathered dinosaur Wulong bohaiensis is seen in this image released in San Diego, California, USA, on January 17, 2020. Erick Toussaint / Disclosure via REUTERS
The two-legged Cretaceous dinosaur, called Wulong bohaiensis, was a light-weight meat eater – slightly larger than a crow – that resided in a lakeside setting, the researchers said. It had a scaly face, a mouthful of pointed teeth and a particularly dangerous claw, and probably hunted small mammals, lizards, birds and fish.
The Wulong fossil, unearthed in Liaoning province in northeastern China, includes a complete skeleton, as well as soft tissues such as feathers, rarely preserved in such detail. Its long arms and legs had sets of feathers similar to bird wings, while most of the rest of the body was covered with soft filaments.
At the end of its long bony tail – fused into a rigid rod – were two very long feathers.
“The Wulong specimen is a wonderful fossil. With the feathers and claws, I think it would be beautiful and a little scary. I would love to see one alive, ”said paleontologist at the San Diego Museum of Natural History, Ashley Poust, who led the research published this week in the journal Anatomical Record.
"I think we still don't know how the feathers were used," said Poust. "It seems likely that they helped regulate temperature and signal to other animals, but how that would be and how much these functions mattered is still unclear."
Birds evolved from small feathered dinosaurs some 150 million years ago. But there were many feathered dinosaurs that didn't fly, like Wulong. Scientists are eager to understand the differences in plumage between birds and these feathered dinosaurs.
A careful examination of the bones showed that this Wulong individual was about a year old, a young man still growing.
“Live birds get to adult size very quickly, mainly as a way to stay strong enough to fly as quickly as possible. But they can delay getting their adult sentences for a long time. Seagulls, for example, do not look like adults for three or four years, despite learning to fly in just three months, "said Poust.
Young Wulong looked like an adult's plumage.
"Here is an animal that has all kinds of signs of being juvenile, outside the bones, inside the bones, in the joints," said Poust. “And it has long, isolated plumes that extend from its already very long tail. This is quite different from live birds and tells us that these decorative feathers preceded adulthood in dinosaurs. Of course, perhaps they are using these feathers in a very different way from live birds as well. "
Wulong means "dancing dragon", so named because of the active-looking pose of his fossilized skeleton. It belongs to a group of meat eaters called dromaeosaurs, which also includes the Velociraptor. This dinosaur lived 75 million years ago in Mongolia and appears in the "Jurassic Park" films.
Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Sandra Maler
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