Paleontologists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology (IVPP) have found the remains of a feathered, dragon-like forerunner of the fearsome Tyrannosaurus rex. The creature lived between 139 million and 128 million years ago in northeastern China's Liaoning Province.
The IVPP's leading researcher Professor Xu Xing -- considered the world's most successful fossil hunter -- said on October 7 that the fossils of this surprising creature are extremely well preserved. They have a skull that is almost complete, a rare phenomenon in fossils of such antiquity.
Xu has named the new discovery Dilong paradoxus. The first word is a composite of the Chinese "di" (emperor or imperial) and "long" (dragon), while the second refers to the surprising physical appearance of the animal.
D. paradoxus was small and slender: of the four sets of remains found, the longest measures only about 1.6 meters from nose to tail, while the other three are just 1.5 meters. The creature had the characteristic powerful rear legs and ferociously sharp teeth that made the T. rex the master of its world for 20 million years, a reign that ended with the disappearance of the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago.
But nearly all Tyrannosaurus remains found so far indicate that those creatures were huge, at least 10 meters in length.
There are several other significant differences as well. For example, D. paradoxus' arms were longer in proportion to its body than those of its monster-size descendant, and it had a long, dragon-like snout.
Its scaly skin was covered with some sort of fibrous coat. Researchers believe this coat was made up of a type of proto-feathers that were used for warmth rather than for flight.
"This discovery is of great significance. It proves that the early ancestor of Tyrannosaurus rex was small. It evolved gradually into a mighty beast. With the increase of its body size, its feathers gradually disappeared. This is also the first direct fossil evidence that tyrannosaurids had protofeathers. It proves again that the dinosaurs were descended from the same ancestors as birds," said Xu.
The find was made at the Yixian formation in western Liaoning, a veritable dinosaur graveyard that has yielded an abundance of unique fossils.
(China.org.cn by staff writer Wang Qian, October 9, 2004)