Cretaceous Zhenyuanlong by Zhao Chuang

Published on July 16th, 2015 | by Liz Martin-Silverstone


New dromaeosaurid – Meet Zhenyuanlong

Another new feathered dinosaur has been described today from the Early Cretaceous of China. Zhenyuanlong joins the ever expanding list of feathered theropods from this region, and has implications for the evolution of wings in dinosaurs. We got in touch with co-author on the study Steve Brusatte about the new find:

“My colleague Junchang Lu and I are very excited to announce the newest dinosaur: the feathered, winged Zhenyuanlong from the Early Cretaceous of China. Zhenyuanlong is a dinosaur that really looks like a bird. Feathers cover most of its body. Simply fluffy fuzz coats the head and neck, long feathers stick out from the tail, and the arms have three layers of quill-pen feathers forming wings. The wings of Zhenyuanlong look remarkably similar to those of living birds. But Zhenyuanlong was not a bird, it was a dromaeosaurid, a very close cousin of Velociraptor. And Zhenyuanlong probably couldn’t fly. It was a fairly large dromaeosaurid, about two meters long from snout to tail, and weighed a pretty hefty (for these types of dinosaurs) 20 kilograms. Not only that, but its forearms were really short, less than half the length of the hindlimb. A big, bulky, short-armed dromaeosaurid probably wasn’t flying or gliding. So what were the wings for? That is the key question. Maybe Zhenyuanlong evolved from a flying ancestor and retained its wings through the inertia of common descent. Or maybe its wings were doing something else, like being used as a display structure or in egg brooding. And that raises an even bigger and more fascinating question: why did wings themselves evolve in dinosaurs? A few years ago most paleontologists would probably have said that proper wings, with layers of aerodynamic feathers, evolved specifically for flight. Now we’re not so sure. Maybe they evolved for display or another purpose, and then a small, light-weight dinosaur found itself, by sheer evolutionary luck, with an airfoil. So maybe wings allowed dinosaurs to fly rather than being evolved specifically for that purpose. Our new study is published in the open access journal Scientific Reports. The holotype of Zhenyuanlong, which is from the famous ‘feathered dinosaur’ deposits of Liaoning China, can be seen at the Jinzhou Paleontological Museum in China.”


Zhenyuanlong skeleton. Image credit: Junchang Lü.

*Reconstruction credit: Zhao Chuang

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