“The new fossil documents that dinosaur flight was not limited to very small animals, but to dinosaurs of more substantial size,” Chiappe said.
Archaeopteryx, the iconic early bird, lived approximately 150 million years ago. Birds, therefore, were around for just 25 million years before Changyuraptor emerged -- a drop in the proverbial geologic bucket.
Changyuraptor’s precise evolutionary relationship to birds is unclear at the moment, aside from the fact that it appears to have enjoyed eating them.
“Whether the flight capabilities of Changyuraptor and its kin evolved independently to the flight capabilities of birds is controversial,” Chiappe said. “Most likely, some of the aerodynamic features we see in Changyuraptor -- like the large forewings -- are the result of the same evolutionary event.”
Chiappe agrees with other studies concluding that pre- or proto-feathers first evolved for thermoregulation. Feathers then appear to have evolved into larger structures that could have served more than one purpose.
The new dinosaur’s color remains unknown at present, but the dino might have flashed striking, multiple colors. Feathers could then have been used during mating displays as well as for flight.
The plane-resembling Changyuraptor’s tail feathers therefore might have impressed the flier’s potential mates, in addition to helping decrease the speed of descent to ensure safe landings.
“It makes sense that the largest microraptorines had especially large tail feathers,” said Michael Habib, a researcher at the University of Southern California. “They would have needed the additional control.”