Thursday, April 5, 2012

Giant Tyrannosaur relative discovered... and it's fuzzy!

Chinese paleontologist Xing Xu and his colleagues announced today in Nature that they've uncovered beautifully preserved fossils of three large Tyrannosauroids (relatives of the infamous T. rex).  The showstopper: they apparently had feathers.

I'll never see Jurassic Park in the same way again.

"Ian, Freeze!  Stop laughing!"
"Ha ha!  I can't help it.  This Tyrannosaur looks, uh, silly."
(Bottom image cropped from drawing by Brian Choo).

Xu named the new species Yutyrannus huali, a hybrid of Mandarin and Latin meaning "beautiful (huali) feathered (yu) tyrant (tyrannus)." Although smaller than T. rex, the largest of these three dinos is estimated to have weighed about 1.5 tons, making it the largest feathered dinosaur yet discovered -- in fact, about 40 times as large as the previous record-holder, Beipiaosaurus.  The authors opine that other large dinosaurs might have had feathers, but that "the discovery of Y. huali provides solid evidence for the existence of gigantic feathered dinosaurs and, more significantly, of a gigantic species with an extensive feathery covering."

It's not known what the plumage may have been used for, but the authors suggest it may have served as insulation.   There is no fossil evidence that T. rex bore a similar fuzzy coat, but it seems this is still up for debate.  Since T. rex appeared later in the Cretaceous, it's possible that it either had feathers, or lost them as the climate warmed up and insulation became less important.  There are many examples of mammals losing most or all of their fur coat (elephants, humans), even as their relatives did not (wolly mammoths, chimpanzees); why couldn't this have happened with dinosaurs?

Several smaller, early Tyrannosaur relatives had feathers.  Did T. rex have them, too?
(Source: Nature 484, 92–95.)
Whether a minority or a majority of dinosaurs had plumage is up for debate, but there is evidence that other dinos were feathery, including velociraptor.  It seems more and more accurate to say that dinosaurs were just early birds, and that birds are late dinosaurs.

In any case, there's something freakishly alluring about a predator that combines the fearsomeness of a T. rex with the beauty of a bird-of-paradise or the silliness of a chicken.  I'd like to see that remake of Jurassic Park.

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