March 26 (UPI) -- Paleontologists have identified a new feathered dinosaur species, one of the last raptors to emerge before the dinosaurs were snuffed out.
Researchers recovered the 67-million-year-old remains from a cretaceous rock deposit in New Mexico's San Juan Basin. Though the fossil was originally discovered in 2008, the excavation and examination process took more than decade.
Scientists described the new species, Dineobellator notohesperus, in a paper published this week in the journal Scientific Reports.
The species name translates as "Navajo warrior from the Southwest," a salute to the indigenous tribes that occupied the land where one of the world's last raptors once lived.
Like it's infamous Asian relatives, members of the genus Velociraptor, Dineobellator notohesperus is a dromaeosaurid, commonly called raptors. The newly discovered raptor stood 3.5 feet at the hip and stretched six or seven feet in length.
Due to their relatively delicate skeletons, the raptor fossil record is sparse, especially in New Mexico and the surrounding region.
"While dromaeosaurids are better known from places like the northern United States, Canada, and Asia, little is known of the group farther south in North America," lead study author Steven Jasinski, who recently earned his doctorate in earth and environmental science at the University of Pennsylvania, said in a news release.
The latest discovery offers scientists fresh insights into what life was like across the American Southwest during the millennia that proceeded the extinction event that killed off the dinosaurs.
During their examination of the ancient raptor bones, scientists found quill nobs on the forearms -- evidence of the presence of feathers. The physiology of the forearm also suggested the relatively small raptor was quite strong. Its claw grip strength would have helped it snatch up and hold onto birds and lizards.
According to the fossil analysis, the raptor's tail was also unique. Unlike the tails of other raptors, which used rod-like structures to stiffen, the tail of Dineobellator notohesperus was able to swivel at the base while the rest of the tail remained straight, like a rudder.
"Think of what happens with a cat's tail as it is running," said Jasinski. "While the tail itself remains straight, it is also whipping around constantly as the animal is changing direction. A stiff tail that is highly mobile at its base allows for increased agility and changes in direction, and potentially aided Dineobellator in pursuing prey, especially in more open habitats."
Jasinski intends to continue searching for raptor fossils in the San Juan Basin, with hopes of building a fuller picture of the region's ancient paleo-biodiversity.
"It was with a lot of searching and a bit of luck that this dinosaur was found weathering out of a small hillside," Jasinski said. "We do so much hiking and it is easy to overlook something or simply walk on the wrong side of a hill and miss something. We hope that the more we search, the better chance we have of finding more of Dineobellator or the other dinosaurs it lived alongside."