Indominus might've grabbed our eyeballs and our cash this movie season, but genetically modified raptor-rexes with an insatiable lust for human blood aren't the only badass new dinos on the block. In fact, Zhenyuanlong suni, a Velociraptor cousin that looks like a tortured peacock on steroids, is arguably even cooler, because it actually existed.
"This new dinosaur is one of the closest cousins of Velociraptor, but it looks just like a bird," said palaeontologist Steve Brusatte University of Edinburgh, who co-authored a scientific paper describing the new feathered monster. "It's a dinosaur with huge wings made up of quill pen feathers, just like an eagle or a vulture. The movies have it wrong - this is what Velociraptor would have looked like too."
Dredged out of the ground by palaeontologists working in the western part of the famously dino-ridden Liaoning Province in China, Z. suni is the largest feathered dino yet to have a well-preserved set of bird-like wings. But even more fascinating than its wings are the long, quill-like feathers that decorated the creature's body. Normally, when palaeontologists talk about feathered dinosaurs, you'd be better off imagining an animal that's had the misfortune of sprouting pubic hair all over its body. Feathers simply weren't up to snuff 125 million years ago.
Fossil remains of Zhenyuanlong suni. Image credit: Junchang Lu
That is, until now. This remarkably well-preserved lizard-bird sported a dense and extravagant plumage on its wings and tail. At 5 feet long, palaeontologists don't think Z. suni could've actually taken to the sky — at least, not using the same muscle-driven flight as modern birds. We really don't yet know what its oversized wings and fancy feathers were about. Perhaps it used them to attract mates, or scare the living bejeezus out of all the other creatures in the forest.
But one way or another, this is an actual dinosaur that actually existed, and it's showing us just how many Cretaceous mysteries are still buried in the ground.
"The western part of Liaoning Province in China is one of the most famous places in the world for finding dinosaurs," said Junchang Lü, a palaeontologist at the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences. "The first feathered dinosaurs were found here and now our discovery of Zhenyuanlong indicates that there is an even higher diversity of feathered dinosaurs than we thought. It's amazing that new feathered dinosaurs are still being found."
If I had to guess, I'd say trainable, pack-hunting feathered killing machines are going to be featuring prominently in the next Jurassic movie. How could Hollywood miss the opportunity to cash in on this? I certainly wouldn't.
You can read the full, open-access scientific paper here.
Top image: Artist's impression of Zhenyuanlong suni, via Chuang Zhao