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Did feathered dino use long tail feathers for flight control?

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Changyuraptor yangi/S. Abramowicz, Dinosaur Institute, NHM

Following on the recent claim that birds are not descended from dinosaurs but from a common ancestor (a claim disputed in this case by, among others, Marcus Ross), well, more dino fluff hits the fan, literally. This time from a new fossil of a 52-million-year-old predator, 4 feet (1.3 metres) long and roughly 9 pounds (4 kg), with tail feathers a foot (1/3 metre) long. It’s the tail feathers, not the ones on the hind limbs, that got the attention this time out. One source describes it as a mid-sized turkey with a very long tail. Jury’s out on whether it flew or flapped.

From ScienceDaily:

The 125-million-year-old dinosaur, named Changyuraptor yangi, was found in the Liaoning Province of northeastern China. The location has seen a surge of discoveries in feathered dinosaurs over the last decade. The newly discovered, remarkably preserved dinosaur sports a full set of feathers cloaking its entire body, including the extra-long tail feathers. “At a foot in length, the amazing tail feathers of Changyuraptor are by far the longest of any feathered dinosaur,” said Chiappe.

These microraptorine dinosaurs are dubbed “four-winged” because the long feathers attached to the legs have the appearance of a second set of wings. In fact, the long feathers attached to both legs and arms of these ancient predators have led researchers to conclude that the four-winged dinosaurs were capable of flying. “Numerous features that we have long associated with birds in fact evolved in dinosaurs long before the first birds arrived on the scene,” said co-author Dr. Alan Turner of Stony Brook University (New York). “This includes things such as hollow bones, nesting behavior, feathers…and possibly flight.”

How well these creatures used the sky as a thoroughfare has remained controversial. The new discovery explains the role that the tail feathers played during flight control. For larger flyers, safe landings are of particular importance. “It makes sense that the largest microraptorines had especially large tail feathers — they would have needed the additional control,” added Dr. Michael Habib, a researcher at the University of Southern California and a co-author of the paper.

The discovery of Changyuraptor consolidates the notion that flight preceded the origin of birds, being inherited by the latter from their dinosaurian forerunners. “The new fossil documents that dinosaur flight was not limited to very small animals but to dinosaurs of more substantial size,” said Chiappe. “Clearly far more evidence is needed to understand the nuances of dinosaur flight, but Changyuraptor is a major leap in the right direction.”

Actually, it could still be convergent evolution (CE) between dinos and birds (descended from a common ancestor). There are plenty of examples of CE. Jury’s still out.

Some cautions offered by Reuters:

Changyuraptor is not considered a bird but rather a very bird-like dinosaur. It illustrates that it is not always easy to tell what is and is not a bird.

Apparently not. Great stories and pix though.

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