The Blast from the Past: The Winged Dragon of China

I’m pretty sure that if you have seen the movie “Jurassic Park” and must have marvelled at the intense cunningness and ferocious grace of the quintessential Velociraptor. Well, imagine being face-to-face which such a creature and it would almost immediately elicit responses which may result in a loss of bladder control. On the other hand, imagine being face-to-face with a Velociraptor that could fly! Now that is the kind of stuff that makes for a good ol’ classic nightmare.

At the same time, the real world is getting closer and closer to the world of imagination and wonder as more and more discoveries uncover untrodden paths to possibilities, which were previously considered non-viable. This particular discovery occurred recently in the mystical land of China where creatures like dragons are considered as an important, almost sacred part of the culture. And surprisingly (or not!) the discovery was that of the evidence of a dragon itself! The fossils of a 125 million-year-old winged dinosaur were found by a farmer in the Liaoning province of China. The fossils were discovered in the fertile plains of the province, where extensive volcanic activity dating back to the Early-Cretaceous period helped in preserving the fossils to quite a degree of intricate detail. The dinosaur has been named as Zhenyuanlong Suni.

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The well-preserved fossilized remains of the Winged Dragon of China

These fossils showed unmistakable signs of feathers adorning the body of the dinosaur, majorly being found on its short arms as well as the larger part of the torso and the tail. The fossil was approximately 6 feet, 6 inches large, indicating that the creature was a formidable raptor-sized predator that roamed the forests of Cretaceous-era China. Through analysis and further visualization, artists and scientists have estimated that these feathers were brightly coloured, which essentially gave it the appearance of a beautiful overgrown bird that you would not want to mess with (unless you always wanted to die by the wrath of a raptor-peacock hybrid).

An artist’s representation of the winged dragon when it was alive and kicking!

Scientists speculate that this creature might be the missing link between the dinosaurs and the birds, just like the smaller Archaeopteryx, which was a much earlier find. On the other hand, owing to the large size of the creature, scientists are quite sceptical as to whether it would have had any luck flying with the help of those feathers. This opens up a whole new dimension of exploration, where the innate nature of utilization of feathers can be explored. If the dinosaur did not use wings and feathers to fly, what could it have used them for? Scientists have come up with some theories, such as the possibility that the feathers were used as vibrant and colorful display during mating rituals, or the fact that the dinosaur actually would have used them to glide short distances, kind of like a long jump with sustained air time (no pun intended there).

The clear imprints of feathers in the fossilized remains

This discovery further begs the question of whether there were more species of winged-dinosaurs,  which somehow kick-started the evolutionary cycle from reptilian giants to birds. These creatures may essentially mark a biological transition between two seemingly different families in the animal kingdom, namely reptiles to aves. If so, then this does open up the possibilities of feathered and winged dinosaurs which may have terrorized the skies like the velociraptors on the ground. That would have been quite a scary time to be alive for a feeble human like you and me.

Image Sources: [1], [2], [3]

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