Depicted by movie-makers as mean, green, man-eating lizards covered in scales, velociraptors probably looked more like large, toothy turkeys, a study said Thursday.
Close study of a newly-discovered cousin dubbed Zhenyuanlong suni, has revealed that velociraptors likely had large wings and feathery coats, according to research published in the journal Scientific Reports.
“The real velociraptor was not a green, scaly monster like in Jurassic Park,” study co-author Steve Brusatte of the University of Edinburgh told AFP.
“The real velociraptor looked like Zhenyuanlong: a fluffy feathered killer.”
Brusatte and a team made a fossil reconstruction of Zhenyuanlong, one of the velociraptor’s closest relatives, which lived in China’s northeastern Liaoning province some 125 million years ago.
It is the largest dinosaur with wings discovered to date.
Zhenyuanlong was about two metres (6.6 feet) long from snout to tail, weighed about 20 kilos (44 pounds), and was a meat-eater.
“Zhenyuanlong is a dinosaur that looks just like a bird,” Brusatte told AFP by email — apart from sharp claws on its wings and a mouth full of teeth.
The Chinese fossil is so well preserved that one can clearly see different kinds of feathers, including hair-like plumes on the body and big quill pen feathers on the arms. Zhenyuanlong would have had “dense feathers” on its wings and tail, according to the team’s analysis.
“So it is a fairly large dinosaur with short arms bit it still has wings that look just like those of living birds,” Brusatte said.
“That raises a really big mystery: why would such an animal have wings?”
It was probably not for flying: Zhenyuanlong was too big and its arms too short to allow it to take to the air.
The team speculated the wings may have been used for display or for protecting its eggs in the nest.
“And maybe that means that wings didn’t even initially evolve for flight, but for another function!” Brusatte said.
“A few years ago, I think most paleontologists would have said that big feathers and wings evolved for flight. But now we don’t know anymore.”
Scientists had previously observed quill attachment points, or knobs, on the arms velociraptor fossils, but no actual feathers — meaning they did not know what type or size of plumes it would have had, or for what purpose.
“We are lucky with Zhenyuanlong. It is found in an area where volcanoes buried dinosaurs, preserving fine details of their feathers,” Brusatte said.
“So Zhenyuanlong tells us what the feathers of velociraptor probably would have looked like…. They would have had feathers like Zhenyuanlong and even big wings on the arms,” he said.
“They would also have been much smaller than their reconstructed movie counterparts.
“A real velociraptor was a little smaller than Zhenyuanlong,” Brusatte added.
“It was only about the size of a poodle dog!”
Paleontologists believe the first birds appeared 150 million years ago and were descendants of small feathered dinosaurs.