Dinosaurs continue to fascinate us millions of years after becoming extinct. Indeed, paleontologists will tell you that dinosaurs are not quite extinct; birds are the modern version of dinosaurs. But how do we reconcile the giant beasts that stomped the Earth more than 65 millions of years ago with feathered, docile beasts like pigeons and sparrows?
Smaller dinosaurs like velociraptors and microraptors are known to have feathers on their limbs. Pterosaurs, the flying reptiles, had membranous wings and hollow bones that helped them fly despite their huge sizes. On the other hand, the large carnivores like Tyrannosaurus rex and Allosaurus have been pictured as reptiles with scaly skin. A recent fossil discovery in China may change how we think about the giants after all. This study was featured on the cover of the journal Nature recently.
Three complete skeletons of the new species, named Yutyrannus Huali were discovered by local farmers in China. These fossils were in an excellent state of preservation and upon study, paleontologists found that these dinosaurs were covered with feathers. Yutyrannus Huali had the same size and shape as its more famous cousin, the T.rex but it is distinguished by the fact that it is the largest ever known fully feathered animal.
Some measurements put the giant at 9 m long and weighing more than 1.4 tonnes; this size makes the Yutyrannus too big to fly. Scientists believe that the feathers may have provided insulation against the colder climes of the late Cretaceous or may have been used as display plumage. It is very rare to find complete fossils of any species in an excellent state of preservation. In rare cases such as this one, it is amazing how much insight paleontologists can obtain from studying the fossils.
While the exact reason why such large theropods had feathers may never be known, this new finding raises new questions about species such as T.rex and if they were feathered or not and where in the evolutionary tree did birds evolve from dinosaurs?