Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Yutyrannus: The Feathered Overlord

It's finally happened. We've found our first large-bodied Feathered Dinosaur!

In what is almost undoubtedly the biggest dinosaur discovery of the year, I'm very pleased to introduce you all to the world's largest known feathered animal; the 3,000-pound, 30 foot long tyrant Yutyrannus huali. A smaller cousin of the fearsome T-rex, Yutyrannus lived roughly 125mya alongside the rest of the feathered Yixian dinosaurs, including the previous record-holder Beipiaosaurus inexpectus. It's going to take a seriously good discovery this year to top this one, which us dinosaur nerds are always hoping for anyways!

This is just paleontological gold, at first I didn't even believe something like this could be real. I thought it might be some kind of late April Fools day joke the scientists made up, but then I actually saw some images of the specimens, and you can clearly make out long, filament-like feathers on them! Apparently, their were three specimens recovered, two adults and a juvenile, and all three have feather impressions on them!

What exactly was Yutyrannus using it's feathers for? Certainly not flight, but perhaps instead they were used as a type of display like a peacock, or possibly for insulation. Why would a 30 foot long 1.5 ton animal need insulation? Typically, the larger an animal is the more stable it's body temperature, thus they don't need much very much insulation because their is otherwise a risk of overheating. However, during the time Yutyrannus was living, the environment of the Yixian formation was actually really, really cold.

Typically when we think of the Mesozoic, we imagine it as being a hot, steaming, swamp-like environment. However, it seems that during the Early Cretaceous period, the planet might have been experiencing a small ice-age. Some scientists have found evidence of glaciation, cold seas, and large expansions of temperate forests around the world. Even evidence for an average temperature of roughly 10 degrees Celsius has been proposed for places like Liaoning. Maybe Yutyrannus evolved its thick coat in order to survive this cold environment, rather like the extinct Mammoths that roamed across the northern hemisphere during the last glacial period.

Now with the discovery of Yutyrannus it begs the question, were later tyrannosaurs also fluffy? During the late Cretaceous when T-rex and many of its relatives lived, the climate was very warm, with snow restricted to the far north and no known glaciers present. Some may argue that this might indicate that while the cold-weather Yutyrannus needed feathers, T-rex would've lost them in it's warmer environment. However, modern day birds have been known to use their feathers both to warm and cool themselves. For example, Ostriches have been known to use their feathers to help both warm and cool their bodies by directing airflow over their feather-less areas, like the thighs. Thus, it's certainly possible that the later tyrannosaurs could have also retained some feathers on the body for cooling purposes.

I know I could probably say a lot more, but I think I'll save that for another topic. As always, feel free to speak your mind, I'm perfectly happy to take requests for topics, and make sure to stay sharp!

1 comment:

  1. First off, this discovery is absolutely amazing! But later Tyrannosaurs is an interesting topic. Feathers running from the neck, back and tail seem quite likely, as we do have the fossilized skin from Gorgosaurus which indicates the lower body was probably scaly or bare. I also think that the possibility of a throat pouch could be considered. It would make use for cooling the giant dinosaur, store food and display.