Velociraptor's role in the Jurassic Park films has made it one of the most widely recognized dinosaurs — even if most people would only recognize a naked version of it. A feathered fossil from China that reveals a new dinosaur species very closely related to Velociraptor is just the latest addition to a mountain of evidence for the theory that the popular depiction is blatantly inaccurate.
The new species is named Zhenyuanlong suni and it is remarkably bird-like, researchers report in the journal Scientific Reports. The 125-million-year-old fossil reveals a nearly complete skeleton of Zhenyuanlong, with bird-like wings featuring very advanced and well-preserved feathers.
"Velociraptor had feathers but we don't know exactly what they looked like, since its fossils are not preserved in those perfect settings that fossilize soft tissues," study co-author Steve Brusatte told Tech Times. "Zhenyuanlong was preserved in this way – it lived along quiet lakes that were periodically buried by volcanoes – so its fossil skeleton is covered in feathers. Zhenyuanlong gives us a glimpse at what Velociraptor would have really looked like."
Without a higher quality fossil of Velociraptor itself, no one can say for sure just how feathered velociraptor was. But its close cousin Zhenyuanlong was essentially indistinguishable from modern birds.
"This is a dinosaur that looks like a bird. If you look at its wing, it looks basically indistinguishable from the wings of eagles or vultures in its overall form," Brusatte said. "I think if you saw Zhenyuanlong alive you would make no distinction between it and, say, an eagle or a turkey."
Yet Zhenyuanlong's wings are very short — too short to be very useful for flight. This leads researchers to believe that the species may have evolved from dinosaurs that could fly, but that it later lost this ability and began to use its wings for display only.
This is a strong possibility, given that elaborate displays are quite common in modern birds, most famously the peacock. But for now, Brusatte said this fairly large dinosaur with short arms and huge wings "raises a big new mystery."