Scientists have discovered what they say is the largest-known feathered dinosaur, and its fossil could provide new insight into prehistoric flight.
Meet the Changyuraptor yangi, which Slate describes as a meat-eating, raptor dinosaur with long feathers that grew on both its tail and feet.
Researchers reported Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications that after unearthing and studying the new fossil in China, they determined the nine-pound, four-foot-long feathered dino most likely preyed on early birds and mammals by swooping down on them from the skies.
National Geographic reports the Changyuraptor and other dinos from the raptor family are often thought to have had four wings because their long feathers make their legs look like two extra wings.
The lead researcher on the study examining the new find told The Washington Post, "I’ve never seen anything like it. It is a stunning specimen and it was stunning to see the size of the feathers. This is the dinosaur with the longest known feathers — by far. There is nothing like this by a very good distance."
But the new dino is more than just a cool find.
The Nature Communications paper says its fossils could help them test hypotheses explaining the origin and evolution of avian flight. "The lengthy feathered tail of the new fossil provides insight into the flight performance of microraptorines and how they may have maintained aerial competency at larger body sizes."
Basically, the researchers suggest the Changyuraptor could have been able to slam on the brakes and change direction midflight by altering the pitch of its bony tail as it plummeted toward the ground. This action also could have helped with landing, too.
An ancient feather expert told National Geographic via email the ability to control airborne trajectories like that "likely played an important role during the origins of flight as well."
Whether these dinos could actually fly or just glided through the air is still unclear.
But it does sound strikingly similar to the Archaeopteryx, a tiny dinosaur with bird-like characteristics that LiveScience notes is often considered to be the first true bird.
Whether it flew or not, scientists say they were surprised to come across something so big that could be seen in the skies so early in the history of flying creatures.