Illustration of Changyuraptor yangi, a new predatory dinosaur fossil find that is the largest of all four-winged dinosaurs. (S. Abramowicz, Dinosaur Institute, NHM)

Cape Town - Fine feathers don’t necessarily make fine birds, they say – but a new dinosaur species has been discovered by an international team of scientists who say its very long tail feathers may well have been used for regulating flight, and are therefore evidence of its bird-like ability.

The team, led by by palaeontologist Luis Chiappe, of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County in the US, and including UCT palaeobiologist Professor Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan, say that the animal’s long-feathered tail was probably useful in assuring a safe landing – much like the flaps on a fixed-wing aircraft.

The fossil of the 125-million-year-old predator dinosaur, Changyuraptor yangi, was found in the Liaoning Province of north-eastern China.

Traditionally, Archaeopteryx was considered the transitional link between non-avian dinosaurs and modern birds. First discovered in fossil form in a limestone quarry in Germany in 1861, Archaeopteryx was a feathered creature about the size of a large crow, but palaeobiologists have determined that it probably glided and would not have been able to flap.

Since then, and particularly in the Liaoning region over the past decade, more than 20 genera of feathered dinosaurs have been found. Most of them are theropods, a group (taxonomically, a “clade”) of animals that evolved from about 230 million years ago and the descendants of which are represented today by the world’s 10 000 bird species.

Features linking theropod dinosaurs to birds include a furcula (wishbone), air-filled bones, brooding of eggs and feathers.

Some of these theropods, or “microraptorine dinosaurs”, were known as the “four-winged dinosaurs” because their long feathers attached to the legs had the appearance of a second set of wings, Chinsamy-Turan explained.

The newly discovered species has a full set of feathers cloaking its body, including the extra-long tail feathers.

The team’s findings, published yesterday in the journal, Nature Communications, show that with a weight of about 4kg, the 1.22m-long Changyuraptor was the biggest of all four-winged dinosaurs. But the long feathers led the researchers to conclude that it was capable of flying.

Chinsamy-Turan said the creature had at least five years’ growth.

“We propose that its long tail – 30cm – helped to keep it airborne and could have assisted with landing.”

Michael Habib, one of the co-authors and a researcher at the University of Southern California, said the largest microraptorines had large tail feathers as “they would have needed the additional control”.

[email protected]

Cape Argus