Paleo Profile: Zhenyuanlong suni

Name: Zhenyuanlong suni

Meaning: The dinosaur’s full name translates to “Zhenyuan Sun’s dragon”, in honor of the man who “secured the specimen for study”.

Age: Early Cretaceous, around 125 million years ago.

Where in the world?: Liaoning Province, China.

What sort of critter?: Zhenyuanlong was a dromaeosaur – a feathery, carnivorous dinosaur closely related to Velociraptor.

Size: About five feet long.

How much of the creature’s body is known?: A nearly-complete skeleton, including fossilized feathers.

The skeleton of Zhenyuanlong, surrounded by feathers. Courtesy Stephen Brusatte.
The skeleton of Zhenyuanlong, surrounded by feathers. Courtesy Stephen Brusatte.


Claim to fame: 
Feathers didn’t evolve for flight. They allowed it. Paleontologists have recognized this since the 1970s, at least, and numerous discoveries of non-flying dinosaurs covered with fluff, bristles, and other types of wispy integument have confirmed that feathers and their forerunners must have had functions outside the aerodynamic realm. Described by Junchang and Stephen Brusatte, the dinosaur Zhenyuanlong adds to that picture with its extravagant coat of feathers.

A cousin of the famous Velociraptor, the newly-named Zhenyuanlong belongs to a group of dinosaurs already well-known to have had protofeathers. What makes Zhenyuanlong remarkable, however, is that it offers a look at a different way to be a fuzzy raptor. Zhenyuanlong was large compared to other dromaeosaurs found around the same time and place, and the dinosaur had relatively shorter arms than its close relatives. Nevertheless, Zhenyuanlong had an extensive coat of well-developed feathers on its arms and along its tail (although it appears to be missing the long leg feathers dromaeosaurs like Microraptor sported).

Why a short-armed, probably flightless dromaeosaur would have such complex feathers isn’t clear. Perhaps, and Brusatte write, they indicate Zhenyuanlong evolved from flying ancestors and maintained the plumage through a kind of evolutionary inertia. Then again, long arm feathers can still be useful in giving dinosaurs a better grip on inclined surfaces while running as well as keeping small prey down. Now that Zhenyuanlong has a name, paleontologists can start exploring these possibilities.

Reference:

Lü, J., Brusatte, S. 2015. A large, short-armed, winged dromaeosaurid (Dinosauria: Theropoda) from the Early Cretaceous of China and its implications for feather evolution. Scientific Reports. doi: 10.1038/srep11775

Previous Profiles:

Atychodracon megacephalus
Sefapanosaurus zastronensis
Huanansaurus ganzhouensis

9 thoughts on “Paleo Profile: Zhenyuanlong suni

  1. A lovely new find, sadly as is often the case with Nation Geographic they had to goof something, and that illustration is a testament to how incredibly close so many artists come. Its the MIDDLE finger people, the wings are on the middle finger…

  2. This fossil is in amazing condition! Over the years many new species have been discovered in China. He looks like a scary fellow!

  3. @Misheru: the artwork wasn’t done by National Geographic. They had nothing to do with it; the research team commissioned it. So any errors are those of the research team (i.e., me).

  4. How do you decide what the feathers should look like?

    The feathers on that artwork look like they came from a modern flying bird. They seem like a mismatch for an animal that lived 125 million years ago and didn’t have flight.

    Feathers have been evolving during the huge time gap since that animal went extinct. Modern feathers on flying birds look like that because they have been evolving to that shape and form.

  5. @Nuwan: Flightless birds can still have lovely plumage. They’re leftover from a flying ancestry, and often used for display, or to shade their chicks, or a plethora of other oddball things, so it isn’t actually a stretch to give a dinosaur more modern plumage. You might want to check out the flightless steamer ducks (who even have claws on their wings for fighting), various flightless rails, and even domestic chickens (who can fly a little, but not very well), and roadrunners (whom can also fly, but not often – and they likely occupy a similar ecological niche to small dromaeosaurs). Not all flightless birds look like ostriches and emus. In fact, MOST flightless birds don’t look like ostriches and emus.

  6. @Nuwan and Sparticus: Some birds do have unique color pigments in their feathers, such as the psittacofulvins of parrots and the turacoverdin and turacin of turacos and related species. These examples are of course from flighted birds (minus the kakapo), but it does seem to open up the possibility that even a flightless species such as this could have evolved a similarly unique color pigment.

  7. My problem isn’t with the color or the dinosaurs having plumage. It’s more to do with the kind of plumage.

    Modern birds are highly specialized animals. The current form of their feathers have evolved, for 125 million years after this dinosaur. The feathers on that artwork look like they would fit perfectly well on something like a modern owl (I’m not an expert on birds, It’s just my amateur take on it).

    Do you expect feathers to look the same across 125 million years of evolution?

  8. Hello all,

    It seems to me that different types of “wispy integument”, as Brian calls it, proto-feathers and genuine feathers, appeared on the bodies of various species of theropods at different moments in evolutionary history, depending on the prevailing biological or survival needs of these dinos. I believe that the most likely origin of the first “dino fluff” was for corporal insulation, and was not intended in any way to provide the primitive theropods with the power of flight. Later on however, as the large predators which fed on small theropods became more numerous, nature may have brought about beneficial mutations which resulted in true, profuse plumage, and extended arms that developed into wings; the new potential for flight would have enabled these avialae to escape their predators, as well as to emigrate swiftly to more favourable environments. Nature works constantly toward the improvement and survival of the species; at different times, she may use similar mutations which neverless serve different purposes.

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