A couple of mornings ago I cranked up my computer and, after seeing the Socks & Thongs facebook page still stuck on just three likes, I checked my RSS feed to see what was making news in the world of science. Nearly every science site had a story about one particular discovery. A discovery that made my eyes widen, my jaw drop and a dopey smile stretch across my face. Why was I having this reaction? Because, to quote Brian Switek, “Science is awesome. I know this because paleontologists have just announced the discovery of a giant, feather-covered tyrannosaur.”
I should admit here that I’m a bit of a dinosaur fanboy, as demonstrated by their now regular appearances in this blog. If you don’t care much about them, well, you should. And either way, I’m going to write about them.
The new dinosaur has been named Yutyrannus huali, meaning “beautiful feathered tyrant”. Like many of the dinosaur fossils preserved with feathers, this discovery comes from China. What sets it apart is its sheer size. It is the largest feathered dinosaur ever discovered. You can see the difference in the artist’s impression above. The fluffy but menacing Yutyrannus dwarfs the previous record holder, Beipiaosaurus. No wonder the little guys look so blue. An adult Yutyrannus was approximately nine metres long and weighed about 1 400kg, which is up there with the largest carnivores of the Early Cretaceous period in which it lived.
Another impressive feature was how well preserved the fossils were (see the pics at Archosaur Musings). Along with the obvious amazingness of feathers, all three specimens were largely intact and mostly articulated, meaning the bones were correctly positioned. This gives us a good idea of what the Yutyrannus would have looked like. They are even analysing what colour the feathers were, as previously done for Microraptor.
Most news stories about dinosaurs make a link to the most famous dinosaurs like Tyrannosaurus Rex and Velociraptor. But as Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs points out, this is one of the few times that such a link is valid as Yutyrannus appears to be an early ancestor of T. Rex. We know T. Rex’s smaller ancestors had feathers but this is the first time feathers have been found in a large species.
This begs the question did T. Rex have feathers? Being big makes it easier for an animal to retain heat. It has been suggested that T. Rex would have few, if any, feathers to prevent it from overheating, much like today’s elephants have very little hair. The find of Yutyrannus shows that these large dinosaurs could live with feathers. However, Yutyrannus lived in a time and place that was much cooler than North America’s Late Cretaceous period in which T. Rex lived. The short answer is that we still don’t know if T. Rex had feathers, but there is now more evidence to say that it is possible.
So with this cool bit of news to start the Easter long weekend, I know I’ll enjoy my Easter eggs just a little bit more. I hope that you do too.
Xu, X., Wang, K., Zhang, K., Ma, Q., Xing, L., Sullivan, C., et al. (2012). A gigantic feathered dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous of China. Nature, 484(7392), 92-95. doi:10.1038/nature10906