Feathered "Dancing Dragon" Fossil May Provide Insights Into How Birds Evolved From Dinosaurs

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An artist's rendering of what the Wulong bohaiensis, or "dancing dragon," might have looked like (Credit: Erick Toussaint via Ashley Poust)

Paleontologists have long determined that modern-day birds evolved from smaller members of the two-legged, meat-eating theropods, such as velociraptors. However, for many years, the only transitional fossil linking the two had been that of the archaeopteryx — a bird-dinosaur hybrid that lived on Earth about 150 million years ago, during the late Jurassic period.

Now, the perfectly-preserved remains of a small feathered raptor, dating back 120 million years, is providing scientists a glimpse into how the feathered fauna appeared during the Cretaceous period, the third and final period of the Mesozoic Era. The new dinosaur species may also help researchers determine the early connections — and differences — between birds and dinosaurs.

"The new dinosaur fits in with an incredible radiation of feathered, winged animals that are closely related to the origin of birds," said study leader Ashley Poust, a postdoctoral researcher at the San Diego Natural History Museum. "Studying specimens like this not only shows us the sometimes surprising paths that ancient life has taken but also allows us to test ideas about how important bird characteristics, including flight, arose in the distant past."

The perfectly-preserved fossil, which featured many feathers, may provide insight into the connection between dinosaurs and birds (Credit: Ashley Poust)

Named Wulong (Chinese for "dancing dragon") bohaiensis for the artful pose of its impressively preserved fossil, the new species was discovered by a farmer in the Jiufotang Formation in China's Liaoning Province, about a decade ago. However, it lay unnoticed in the collection of the Dalian Natural History Museum until a few years ago when Poust, then a student at Montana State University, stumbled upon the rare find.

The raven-sized dinosaur had a narrow face filled with small, sharp teeth, winglike feathers on its arms and legs, and two plumes at the end of its elongated bony tail. When examining the fossil, Poust and his team, which included scientists from the Dalian Natural History Museum, noticed an anomaly. Poust said, "The specimen has feathers on its limbs and tail that we associate with adult birds, but it had other features that made us think it was a juvenile."

A close-up of the dancing dinosaur's skull (Credit: Ashley Poust)

To determine the dinosaur's age, the researchers performed bone histology, which involved cutting up some of its bones and examining them under a microscope. The results proved their suspicions right — the "dancing dragon" specimen was a juvenile with adult feathers. This is in sharp contrast with modern-day birds, which typically do not get their adult feathers — particularly the tail plumage, which is usually used for mating — until they are fully-grown. "Either the young dinosaurs needed these tail feathers for some function we don't know about, or they were growing their feathers really differently from most living birds," Poust explained.

Lead study researcher Ashley Poust (above) is still uncovering why the dancing dragons developed feathers earlier than modern-day birds (Credit: Ashley Poust)

The Jiufotang Formation, where the "dancing dragon" remains were unearthed, is a treasure trove of fossil deposits. Once home to a wide variety of animals, it is one of the earliest-known bird environments, where birds, bird-like dinosaurs, and pterosaurs all shared the same habitat.

"There was a lot of flying, gliding and flapping around these ancient lakes," Poust said. "As we continue to discover more about the diversity of these small animals, it becomes interesting how they all might have fit into the ecosystem. It was an alien world, but with some of the earliest feathers and earliest flowers, it would have been a pretty one."

Resources: www.sdnhm.org, phys.org

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120 Comments
  • nikki17
    nikki17Wednesday, April 1, 2020 at 3:36 pm
    Dinosaurs are cool and scary if you want to see a dinosaur and you did you would probably cry and run away from them
    • booklover316
      booklover316Friday, March 27, 2020 at 2:47 pm
      I think it's awesome and learning about them is even better! Follow me if you agree👩
      • chiyoakari
        chiyoakariFriday, March 27, 2020 at 11:06 am
        I've always loved dragons
        • jiggy
          jiggyThursday, March 26, 2020 at 12:18 pm
          that's really cool, I wonder what the tail plume was for if it was a kid? its like our appendix! (: Please follow if you like and agree, pls
          • dogcatlover1234
            dogcatlover1234Thursday, March 26, 2020 at 10:39 am
            I like dinosaurs they're cool this one is one of the coolest
            • wopehavi-158488980767
              wopehavi-158488980767Thursday, March 26, 2020 at 6:17 am
              this is cool
              • dino4s
                dino4sTuesday, March 24, 2020 at 1:33 pm
                I am very interested in dinosaurs, and every dinosaur I get to know recently is really exciting for me, and this dinosaur is very cool! Wulong is an amazing feathered dinosaur.
                • memelord098
                  memelord098Tuesday, March 24, 2020 at 12:48 pm
                  Sooo cool!! Plz follow or leave like if you agree!🙏 I have no followers 😭
                  • subtraction
                    subtractionMonday, March 23, 2020 at 12:01 pm
                    So cool
                    • nsim2673
                      nsim2673Saturday, March 21, 2020 at 11:46 am
                      Of course you'd be scared.