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Huge Feathered Chinese Dinosaur: Yutyrannus

Yutyrannus huali – Giant winged dinosaur from China

Paleontologists from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (Beijing, China) have published a scientific paper on a newly described winged dinosaur. In recent years, there have been many discoveries of new types of feathered dinosaur fossils in northern China’s Liaoning Province. However, this new dinosaur find was named Yutyrannus huali stands out for several reasons. Firstly, the specimens are very well preserved and almost complete, secondly, individuals of different sizes have been found, one adult and two juveniles, helping scientists determine how these animals grew and developed, and thirdly – Y. huali it was huge. At around nine meters long and weighing over a tonne (estimated at 1,400kg), this dinosaur is one of the largest winged creatures known to science. As if that wasn’t enough to make dinosaur fans wag their tails and roar with excitement, it appears that this new winged giant may have been a primitive member of Tyrannosaurus, that famous branch of theropods that includes Albertosaurus, Daspletosaurus and of course T. rex.

It rivals Gigantoraptor as the largest known winged creature

Several websites have reported on this discovery, some claiming that this new species is the largest winged creature known to science. True, compared to the Therizinosaur-like Beipiaosaurus (Beipiaosaurus inexpectus), a winged dinosaur also from Liaoning Province is very large. Beipiaosaurus is estimated to have been about 2.5 meters long and weighed eighty kilograms, but commentators forget the huge Oviraptorid – Gigantorapotor erlianensis, it was discovered in 2005 by an expedition to Mongolia by scientists from the Beijing-based institute. Indeed, some of the team that studied the eight-meter long Gigantoraptor are also working on this new giant winged dinosaur. Gigantoraptor is estimated to have been taller than a giraffe.

Yutyrannus Pertaining to Tyrannosaurus rex

Analysis of skull material suggests that Yutyrannnus was a member of the Tyrannosaurus family, a tyrannosaur, though not a direct ancestor of the famous Tyrannosaurus rex, was a carnivore and probably a top predator in its environment. The name Yutyrannus means “beautiful winged tyrant”, in recognition of evidence of long, filamentous feathers found in the fossil record and the classification of this new dinosaur species as a Tyrannosaurus.

Dinosaur from the Early Cretaceous

Yutyrannus huali wandered into what was to become northern China about 125 million years ago (Early Cretaceous Varremian fauna). The Tyrannosaurus family can be traced back to the Late Jurassic, Xu Xing one of the Chinese paleontologists involved in the study of Yutyrannus was responsible for naming and describing Guanlong (Guanlong wucaiI), a key member of the Tyrannosaurus that lived about thirty million years earlier.

Yutyrannus up to nine meters in length

The adult skeleton is about nine meters long and shows that this new dinosaur would rival Gigantoraptor for the title of the largest winged creature known to science. The other two individuals are believed to represent immature individuals rather than a second species. This has been determined by Chinese researchers who noticed that a number of vertebrae (backbones) were not fully fused, indicating that these fossils represent creatures that had not reached adulthood. Even so, these youngsters were already husky. Each would weigh about as much as a fully grown dairy cow.

Proof of wings

All three fossils show evidence that these dinosaurs had feather-like filaments adorning their bodies. Some of the wings were at least fifteen centimeters long. In the adult, traces of feathers have been found along the tail, with immature animals, the feathers appeared to be along the neck and under the humerus (upper arm) in one specimen and near the pelvis and leg in another. Overall, it can be assumed that a single Yutyrannus may have been fully feathered. Certainly, younger animals may have been completely feathered, with feathers helping to insulate this warm-blooded dinosaur. Older animals, with larger bodies that can retain heat better (area-to-volume estimates), may not have been fully feathered. It is possible that as animals grew feathers became important not for insulation against the cold conditions in northern China, but for display or display of “herd” status.

This new discovery, reported in the academic journal Nature, suggests what many paleontologists have long thought, that even the largest theropods could have been feathered. Certainly, due to the size of these individuals, these dinosaurs could not fly, but the wings served another purpose – signaling between other members of the species, or perhaps to insulate the animal from the cold.

The Chinese team is using microscopy and other techniques to try to determine the colors of the feathers, which may give scientists more data about what purpose the feathers served. Their discovery has reignited the debate on whether other Cretaceous tyrannosaurs such as T. rex they were also winged.

Although extensive coal deposits found in the Northern Hemisphere (Canada and Siberia) dating from the Early Cretaceous suggest that the climate was warmer than today, the high latitude with which these fossils are associated indicates that the environment in which these giant theropods wandering around could be decidedly cold. Analysis of the oxygen isotope ratios recovered from Yutyrannus teeth suggests that the climate in this part of China was remarkably similar to northern China today. It has been estimated that the average annual temperature was around ten degrees Celsius – much colder than in other parts of the world where dinosaur remains have been discovered. This finding adds weight to the speculation that feathers helped keep these creatures warm by insulating their bodies from the cold.

Regardless of the function of the feather, the research team concluded that Yutyrannus shows that the drastic reduction in plumage was not an inevitable consequence of the large body size.

Liaoning Province had provided plenty of evidence of small, feathered dinosaurs, so many scientists had suggested that it was only a matter of time before evidence of a large feathered dinosaur was found.

Direct evidence of large winged dinosaurs

Yutyrannus huali provides direct evidence that large, winged dinosaurs existed. It offers new insights into the origin and evolution of feathers, which are themselves highly modified reptilian scales. The fact that two young animals were discovered allows scientists to examine how these animals changed as they grew (helping with ontogenic studies). Described as a basal tyrannosaur, Yutyrannus is similar to other primitive tyrannosaurs found in northern China, though unlike the later T. rex it had three fingers on its hands, which were proportionally much larger than the hands of later tyrannosaurs.

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