Winged changyuraptor adds feather to SA scientist's cap

An illustration of an changyuraptor.(S Abramowicz Dinosaur Institute NHM)

An illustration of an changyuraptor.(S Abramowicz Dinosaur Institute NHM)

It must be one of the strangest creatures the world has ever seen, and, considering the existence of the woolly mammoth and the platypus, that’s saying something.

An international team of experts, including Professor Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan from the University of Cape Town, has discovered a small, feathered dinosaur with four wings and a long tail. Discovered in the Liaoning province in China, the 125-million-year-old microraptor sheds light on how dinosaurs flew, long before birds as we know them existed.

Enter the changyuraptor which, at 4kg, is the largest of all known four-winged dinosaurs. It also had a full set of feathers covering its body, and long tail feathers. The team, led by Dr Luis Chiappe from the Natural History Museum Los Angeles in the United States, had its findings published on Tuesday in scientific journal Nature Communications.

“The new fossil documents that dinosaur flight was not limited to very small animals but to dinosaurs of more substantial size,” Chiappe said. “Clearly far more evidence is needed to understand the nuances of dinosaur flight.”

Dr Alan Turner, from Stony Brook University in New York, said: “Numerous features that we have long associated with birds in fact evolved in dinosaurs long before the first birds arrived on the scene. This includes things such as hollow bones, nesting behaviour, feathers and possibly flight.” But the question of how dinosaurs would have flown remains unanswered.

“As we know, birds have wings on their forelimbs. However, about 10 years ago predatory dinosaurs were discovered with wings on both their forelimbs, and hindlimbs,” said Chinsamy-Turan.

Tail feathers
Scientists do not know how these creatures could fly with four wings.

But these researchers believe that their latest find shows that tail feathers played an important role in flight.

“Our new microraptor, changyuraptor, is quite large, and we propose that its unusually long tail [30cm in length] helped to keep it airborne and could have assisted with landing.”

The bigger the creature, the more important a safe landing becomes, and “it makes sense that the largest microraptorines had especially large tail feathers – they would have needed additional control”, said Dr Michael Habib from the University of Southern California.

Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild is a multiaward-winning science journalist. She studied physics, electronics and English literature at Rhodes University in an effort to make herself unemployable. It didn't work and she now writes about particle physics, cosmology and everything in between.In 2012, she published her first full-length non-fiction book Searching African Skies: The Square Kilometre Array and South Africa's Quest to Hear the Songs of the Stars, and in 2013 she was named the best science journalist in Africa by Siemens in their 2013 Pan-African Profiles Awards. Read more from Sarah Wild


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