Scientists have found a new, and intriguing, ancestor of the velociraptor. The creature was the size of Michael Jordan (6' 6"), but unlike the basketball star (despite his impressive vertical), this dinosaur had wings. It lived about 125 million years ago and was exceptionally preserved in limestone due to a volcanic eruption; this means that its feathers are clearly evident.
While this raptor was undoubtedly fearsome, it probably looked a little bit like Big Bird, or in the words of study author Dr.Steve Brusatte: "It will blow some people's minds to realise that those dinosaurs in the movies would have been even weirder, and I think even scarier - like big fluffy birds from hell."
What does this discovery say about flight behaviour, and the transition between dinosaurs and birds? This species did not fly, but it adds to the growing wealth of evidence that feathers evolved -- and became widespread! -- in dinosaurs well before flight evolved. The evolution of wings-- with large, pennaceous feathers, could well have been for sexual display, but this is obviously diffiult to test in the fossil record (how do we know what dinosaurs preferred?) Another hypothesis is that wings and large feathers slowly evolved to aid with gliding-- but this seems quite unlikely in the absence of evolutionary evidence for the existence of gliding or arboreal behaviour in dinosaurs.
A final hypothesis is that wings evolved to enhance predator leaps or prey grabbing motions. If you want my take, I'd say the most likely explanations are sexual selection or assistance with leaping.
Many thanks to Teddy Collins, coauthor of Team of Teams, for sharing this article!
"China is the epicentre of palaeontology right now. "There are [museum] storerooms full of new dinosaur fossils that have never been studied before. He added: "This is the most exciting time maybe in the history of palaeontology."