Zhenyuanlong sunia, the “feathered poodle from hell,” was the largest known dinosaur with wings.
An almost complete and remarkably well preserved fossil skeleton of the largest winged dinosaur ever known has been discovered in northeast China and named Zhenyuanlong sunia in honor of its discoverer, Chinese paleontologist Junchang Lu. The name is reported to mean “Zhenyuan Sun’s dragon.”
Zhenyuanlong sunia, which was part of a family of feathered, carnivorous dinosaurs that was widespread during the Cretaceous Period, lived about 125 million years ago. It was about 5 feet to 6 feet long and “covered with simple hair-like feathers over much of its body, with large, quill-like feathers on its wings and long tail.” (World)
While Zhenyuanlong sunia almost certainly was not a direct ancestor of modern birds, it was a close relative. It was also a cousin of velociraptor, which apparently also had feathers but not wings.
Scientists have known since the 1970s that certain species of dinosaur had feathers that apparently did not evolve for flying. Most of them were simple filaments that looked more like hair than modern bird feathers. Zhenyuanlong sunia, however, had dense, bird-like feathers covering it’s wings and tail. Recent discoveries suggests that moderately large dinosaurs with strong, complex feathers may have been more common than previously thought.
After seeing pictures of huge, 80-ton monsters eating leaves from tall tree-tops and the tyrannosaurs that preyed on them, it may seem strange to describe a six-foot dinosaur as “large;” but most dinosaurs were actually fairly small. They came in all sizes, but it has been said the “average” dinosaur was only about the size of a chicken. Larger dinosaurs with wings have never been found, although many larger ones apparently had feathers of one kind or another. (And did you ever notice those reptilian scales that still protect the legs and feet of chickens and other birds?)
There seems to be a practical limit on how large a creature can be and still have the strength to fly. This is because generally, as body length doubles in one dimension, space for flying muscles doubles in two dimensions and is multiplied by four, but body mass doubles in all three dimensions and increases by a factor of eight. For this reason, it quickly becomes impossible for larger animals of any kind to have the strength to fly. (This is just a general “rule of thumb,” not a fixed law of nature; because body shapes and designs can also change.)
Dr. Steve Brusatte, from the School of GeoSciences at Edinburgh and co-author of the study, described it (the new dinosaur) as a “feisty little feathered poodle from hell.” (TechTimes)
Because of its size and its short, stubby wings, it is relatively certain these dinosaurs could not fly. The discoverers speculate their wings may have been used for display to attract mates and/or intimidate rivals or possibly to shelter their eggs and chicks. They might also have been used as an aid in jumping or running uphill, in the same ways modern flightless birds sometimes use their wings. It’s entirely possible that wings originally evolved for some of these reasons and only later became useful for flying.
Ignorance is rampant, as usual.
A group of ignoramus commenters on one of the source sites poked fun at the idea that wings might evolve for any reason other than flying. This indicates not only a lack of knowledge, but also a lack of imagination. Many modern animals all over the world use various ways to look larger than they really are. Mammals, for example, have tiny muscles attached to each hair on their bodies that make the hairs stand erect at appropriate times. This makes them look larger and therefore more impressive to potential mates and more intimidating to enemies and rivals. It also lets the hair or fur better protect the body against cold and other environmental assaults. Evolution and biology frequently use an organ for more than one purpose.
Even though humans have lost most of our body hair, we still have this reaction, which we refer to as “having goose bumps.” Feathers, especially on wings, can serve these purposes even more effectively.
Even though the creature was probably too heavy to fly with its large body and short, stubby wings, it still looked like a bird. “Zhenyuanlong was a dinosaur that really looked like a bird,” said Brusatte. “You wouldn’t think of it differently than a turkey or an emu or a big chicken.”
Well, maybe. Except for those teeth and that long, reptilian tail.