Environment & Science

New fossil reveals 4-winged dinosaur ... that could fly?

This is an illustration of newly discovered feathered dinosaur, Changyuraptor yangi.
This is an illustration of newly discovered feathered dinosaur, Changyuraptor yangi.
S. Abramowicz, Dinosaur Institute, NHM

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A recently discovered four-winged dinosaur fossil is providing new evidence on how these prehistoric creatures — believed to be the precursor to modern birds — could have flown.

The fossil, discovered in the Liaoning Province of northeastern China, shows foot-long feathers attached to the tail of a carnivorous dinosaur called Changyuraptor yangi.

"They were so big, perfectly preserved... it was just amazing," said Luis Chiappe, director of the Dinosaur Institute at the L.A. County Natural History Museum and co-author of a study on the feathers being published Tuesday. 

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He said these are the longest tail feathers ever seen on a dinosaur.

The 4-foot, 9-pound Changyuraptor lived about 125 million years ago. Not only was its tail adorned with a fan of long feathers, it also had plumage on its arms and legs.

Chiappe says these features likely allowed for complicated aerial moves.

"The tail functioned to control the pitch, that means to control when the animal was either nose up or nose down," he said.

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Chiappe said past research on other flying animals show such tails also help animals reduce speed when landing.

Donald Prothero has written numerous books on prehistoric animals. He wasn’t involved with this study, but he says it adds to a growing body of research on the origins of flight in birds.

"It suggests that flight goes back to before birds, long before birds actually."

He says there is still plenty of debate though on whether or not these dinosaurs used their feathers just for gliding or if they were able to launch themselves into the air from the ground.