Archaeologists have unearthed the fossil of a “four-winged” dinosaur bird – indicating that feathered dinosaurs may have been able to fly before the evolution of birds.
The long tail feathers of Changyuraptor, from north-east China, would have provided the stability and speed control required for a safe landing.
At four feet long and weighing 90 pounds, the creature, which lived 125 million years ago, is the biggest dinosaur of its type yet discovered.
The well-preserved fossil shows that its body was cloaked by a full set of feathers and, in comparison with its body size, the foot-long tail feathers were unusually long.
“Four-winged” dinosaurs, known as microraptorines, are so-called because the long feathers attached to their legs have the appearance of a second set of wings.
And the well-developed feathers on both legs and arms have led scientists to wonder if the creatures were capable of flight.
Dr Alan Turner, from Stony Brook University, New York, one of the authors of the new research published in the journal Nature Communications, said: "Numerous features that we have long associated with birds in fact evolved in dinosaurs long before the first birds arrived on the scene.
"This includes things such as hollow bones, nesting behaviour, feathers, and possibly flight."
The Changyuraptor discovery further blurs the lines between dinosaurs and the first early birds.
Earlier this month, it was revealed that the Earth’s oldest-known bird was a paleontological rock star that sported “feather trousers” on its legs.
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Scientists said the best-preserved fossil of Archaeopteryx ever found showed that the ancient creature’s plumage was very similar to that of modern-day birds – and that it was capable of flying.
Speaking of the latest discovery, study leader Dr Luis Chiappe, from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, said: "The new fossil documents that dinosaur flight was not limited to very small animals but to dinosaurs of more substantial size.
"Clearly far more evidence is needed to understand the nuances of dinosaur flight, but Changyuraptor is a major leap in the right direction."
Additional reporting by Press Association