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17 July 2015updated 20 Aug 2021 1:43pm

Researchers discover a big winged dinosaur so big it probably couldn’t fly

Resarchers working in China have found a new dinosaur with one of the most complex, well-preserved pair of wings ever seen – too bad it probably couldn't fly. 

By Tosin Thompson

It’s hard believe a pigeon that eats KFC chicken left on the side of a road is the distant cousin of the once formidable and majestic dinosaurs. But it’s true. In fact, many dinosaurs donned wings themselves.

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh and the Creative Academy of Geological Sciences now report the largest ever winged dinosaur fossil. The study is published in the journal Scientific Reports.

The 6ft 6in (2m) creature found almost perfectly preserved for 125 million years in China’s Liaoning province was a glossy, birdlike creature, beautified with multiple layers of feathers all over its arms and torso. The dinosaur almost certainly couldn’t fly – it was too big – however, it does confirm that wings originally evolved to serve other important functions such as attracting mates and keeping eggs warm.

“I was blown away when I first saw the fossil. It was the most beautiful fossil I had ever seen. And it was one of the most puzzling because it was a mule sized dinosaur with short arms, but it had the full blown wings of a bird,”  lead researcher Dr Steve Brusatte tells me. 

The researchers have named the dinosaur Zhenyuanlong suni, which means “Zhenyuan’s dragon” – after Zhenyuan Sun, a representative of the Jinzhou Paleontological Museum where the fossil is kept.

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Over the last two decades, thousands of winged dinosaurs have been found in Liaoning, facilitating researchers’ understanding of the origin of flight. One of the most important of these Liaoning groups is the Dromaeosauridae, a family of featured theropod dinosaurs, particularly the famed Velociraptor – Zhenyuanlong suni’s descendant. This poses the question: what other purpose(s) do wings serve?

“I kept asking myself: why would this dinosaur have wings? It just didn’t seem like it could fly, so the wings must have been doing something else. We still are trying to understand that mystery. Sometimes new fossils raise more questions than answers,” Dr Brusatte tells me. 

The researchers say that Zhenyuanlong evolved from ancestors that could take flight. In the paper, “Larger and presumably non-volant dromaeosaurids could suggest that the larger and short-armed Zhenyuanlong evolved from more volant ancestors. [Zhenyuanlong] maintained a many aspects of the integument through the inertia of common descent or for other selective reasons, not because it needed them for flight.”

Wings on Zhenyuanlongs might have been an evolutionary by-product that helped to serve other functions such as appealing to the opposite sex, or keeping itself or its eggs warm – much like what living flightless birds like penguins and ostriches use them for.

So if Zhenyuanlong’s feathers and wings were used for sexual display or other kinds of signalling, it would have probably increased the rate of reproduction, allowing one lineage of dinosaurs, the birds, to bypass the mass extinction that wiped out all the others.

So sexy winged dinosaurs might be the result of birds like pigeons – they say good looks skip a generation, perhaps they mean a couple million.