Feathered dinosaurs were extra fluffy, new research shows

By Brooks Hays  |  Nov. 30, 2017 at 10:46 AM
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Nov. 30 (UPI) -- New analysis of the remains of a bird-like dinosaur called Anchiornis suggests feathered dinosaurs were fluffier than researchers thought.

Modern birds are the evolutionary offspring of a group of feathered theropod dinosaurs. Together they comprise the group known as paravians -- a group that included the famed Velociraptor.

The fossilized remains of an Anchiornis specimen offered scientists at the University of Bristol in England the opportunity to study the dinosaur's feathers in great detail. Because some of the specimen's features had become separated from its body prior to burial and fossilization, researchers were able to closely study their structure.

The new analysis revealed long, flexible barbs protruding from short quills, forming two vanes. The feathers appeared like a fluffy fork-tuner, or a large v-shape.

The feathers in question are known as contour feathers, as they covered the dinosaur's body. Paravian dinosaurs also boasted more decorative bird-like feathers.

Contour feathers offered warmth and protection and, as the latest research showed, they also offered their wearers a fluffy appearance.

The findings -- detailed this week in the journal Paleontology -- allowed paleoartists to update their imagery of feathered dinosaurs to reflect the fluffier appearance of Anchiornis and other paravians.

"Paleoart is a weird blend of strict anatomical drawing, wildlife art, and speculative biology. The goal is to depict extinct animals and plants as accurately as possible given the available data and knowledge of the subject's closest living relatives," paleoartist Rebecca Gelernter said in a news release. "As a result of this study and other recent work, this is now possible to an unprecedented degree for Anchiornis. It's easy to see it as a living animal with complex behaviors, not just a flattened fossil."

In addition to inspiring new illustrations, the research also revealed the challenges faced by early paravians as they attempted flight.

The contour feathers of Anchiornis were so fluffy they likely caused too much drag to allow the dinosaur to achieve liftoff. However, Anchiornis' longer bird-like feathers on its four wings -- one for each limb, two arms and two legs -- likely allowed the dinosaur to glide when jumping from trees and cliffs.

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