Fossil of 'Fluffy' Winged Dinosaur Discovered in China

A rendering of the dinosaur Zhenyuanlong suni, created by Zhao Chuang. Courtesy of Stephen L. Brusatte

The fossil of a six-foot-long, nearly 50-pound dinosaur has been discovered in northeast China. Unlike many other dinosaurs, this one had wings and feathers, likely very colorful ones.

Zhenyuanlong suni, known more causually as Zhenyuanlong or Zhenyuanan's dragon, roamed Earth millions of years ago. Scientists learned of its existence after a farmer discovered a fossil the size of a dining table on his land. The fossil was taken to a Chinese museum, where it was investigated by researchers Junchang Liu and Stephen L. Brusatte.

Northeast China is fossil-rich, and much of the land is tilled by farmers. The person who found it "is still anonymous because most farmers there don't want fossil hunters crawling all over their crops," Brusatte told Newsweek in a phone interview.

Though the fossil was well preserved, it lacks the tail, which researchers believe would have been long.

The wings and feathers on Zhenyuanlong are what make it so unusual and interesting to scientists. "Its the largest dinosaur we have found that still has wings and it still has pretty short arms for one of these dinosaurs. Its the first time that we have a relatively large, short-winged, short-armed dinosaur," Brusatte explained.

Though the feathers are quite long, the dinosaur's bones are rather short, giving it an unusual shape that is not conducive to flight. "This begs the question of what it was doing with its wings. It doesn't seem like it was flying or even gliding. It is a bulky animal that wouldn't have been comfortable in the air," Brusatte said. "It wouldn't make sense for it to fly but we don't know why it has wings. Perhaps it evolved from an ancestor that flew; maybe it evolved wings for something else, like protecting their eggs or for display."

Figuring out why the dinosaur had wings is the next step for researchers. Brusatte calls it an "exciting new mystery."

Brusatte is particularly fond of this fossil because of the scientific doors it opens and due to its unusual look. "Its a beautiful fossil and a weird, wacky-looking animal that gets people thinking," he said.

Asked if he has developed any pet names for Zhenyuanlong, Brusatte said he hasn't but mentioned that "some people are calling it the fluffy poodle from hell. It's a fluffy poodle, a fluffy mule sort of. Maybe just call it a fluffy furball dinosaur."