Name: Zhenyuanlong suni
Meaning: The dinosaur’s full name translates to “Zhenyuan Sun’s dragon”, in honor of the man who “secured the specimen for study”.
Age: Early Cretaceous, around 125 million years ago.
Where in the world?: Liaoning Province, China.
What sort of critter?: Zhenyuanlong was a dromaeosaur – a feathery, carnivorous dinosaur closely related to Velociraptor.
Size: About five feet long.
How much of the creature’s body is known?: A nearly-complete skeleton, including fossilized feathers.
Claim to fame: Feathers didn’t evolve for flight. They allowed it. Paleontologists have recognized this since the 1970s, at least, and numerous discoveries of non-flying dinosaurs covered with fluff, bristles, and other types of wispy integument have confirmed that feathers and their forerunners must have had functions outside the aerodynamic realm. Described by Junchang Lü and Stephen Brusatte, the dinosaur Zhenyuanlong adds to that picture with its extravagant coat of feathers.
A cousin of the famous Velociraptor, the newly-named Zhenyuanlong belongs to a group of dinosaurs already well-known to have had protofeathers. What makes Zhenyuanlong remarkable, however, is that it offers a look at a different way to be a fuzzy raptor. Zhenyuanlong was large compared to other dromaeosaurs found around the same time and place, and the dinosaur had relatively shorter arms than its close relatives. Nevertheless, Zhenyuanlong had an extensive coat of well-developed feathers on its arms and along its tail (although it appears to be missing the long leg feathers dromaeosaurs like Microraptor sported).
Why a short-armed, probably flightless dromaeosaur would have such complex feathers isn’t clear. Perhaps, Lü and Brusatte write, they indicate Zhenyuanlong evolved from flying ancestors and maintained the plumage through a kind of evolutionary inertia. Then again, long arm feathers can still be useful in giving dinosaurs a better grip on inclined surfaces while running as well as keeping small prey down. Now that Zhenyuanlong has a name, paleontologists can start exploring these possibilities.
Lü, J., Brusatte, S. 2015. A large, short-armed, winged dromaeosaurid (Dinosauria: Theropoda) from the Early Cretaceous of China and its implications for feather evolution. Scientific Reports. doi: 10.1038/srep11775