A cuddly tyrannosaur

Feathered Dinosaurs 1
Feathered dinosaur Deinonychus (Photo credit: Aaron Gustafson)

Feathered and fluffy dinosaurs in the families that may have led to birds have become almost commonplace, thanks to wonderful preservation in some Chinese Mesozoic sedimentary rocks (see http://earth-pages.co.uk/2003/03/01/flying-feathers/)  and what has become a cottage industry for local people, under professional direction. Most have been small theropods in the Coelurosauria taxonomic branch that span the Jurassic and Cretaceous Periods. The famous Lower Cretaceous Liaoning lagerstätte in NE China recently yielded something truly awesome: three well-preserved specimens of a feathered dinosaur almost as large as the giant tyrannosaurs of the Late Cretaceous (i.e. > 1 tonne in life) (Xu, X. et al.2012. A gigantic feathered dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous of China. Nature, v. 484. P. 92-95). In fact Yutyrannus huali (‘beautiful feathered tyrant)is a member of the same subgroup as the Upper Cretaceous T. rex and was clearly a top predator in its day. Equally fortuitous is that the three specimens  comprise one with a living body weight of about 1.4 t, the other two being between 500 and 600 kg. Various differences between the largest and the two smaller individuals suggest that thee find represents two generations, the largest perhaps 8 years older than the two smaller ones. All three preserve densely packed filaments suggesting that they were fluffy rather than truly feathered. So why the difference from its probably scaly relative tyrannosaurs from about 50 Ma later?

Around 125 Ma global climate was considerably cooler than the Late Cretaceous greenhouse world, Liaoning probably having mean annual air temperatures around 10°C compared with 18°C late in the Period. Yutyrannus huali and some of its contemporary theropods probably evolved high TOG insulation to ensure all-season sprightliness. It is also possible that a display function was also involved, as seems to have been the case for other dinosaurs.

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