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Dressed to kill: A feathered tyrannosaur is discovered in China

A team of paleontologists has dubbed their find Yutyrannus huali – beautiful feathered tyrant. At 1.5 tons, this 'fuzz ball ... with a mouth full of killer teeth' is the largest feathered dinosaur by far.

By Staff writer / April 4, 2012

This artist concept provided by the Beijing Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology shows a new species of tyrannosaur, Y. huali, discovered in China.

Brian Choo/Beijing Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology/AP

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It's not often you see a dinosaur with a girth and toothy grimace reminiscent of Tyrannosaurus rex yet covered in a downy winter coat worthy of L.L. Bean.

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But that's what a team of paleontologists in China reports. They've dubbed their find Yutyrannus huali (beautiful feathered tyrant), a creature that stretched 30 feet from tail-tip to snout and weighed 1.5 tons.

It's the largest dinosaur yet to host feather-like features all over its body – features well preserved on three nearly complete, mostly intact fossil skeletons the team found.

“It's very intriguing to think of this very large fuzz ball running around with a mouth full of killer teeth,” quips Hans-Dieter Sues, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of Natural History in Washington.

But, he adds, the discovery addresses a serious question researchers have asked since the first fossils of feathered dinosaurs were uncovered in the 1990s: How widely do they appear among the various types of dinosaurs?

Meat-eating dinosaurs hosting feathers makes sense, Dr. Sues says, because they are the ancestors of modern birds. But if the covering extends to the vegetarians as well, it would imply that feathers of some sort came from a common primitive dinosaur ancestor to both the carnivores and vegetarians, Sues suggests. That in turn raises the question: Would feathers have helped the earliest dinosaurs gain an evolutionary advantage over their rivals, many of which had dinosaur-like features in their skeletons, but became dead-end branches on the so-called Tree of Life. Meanwhile, the dinosaurs survived, ruling the planet for nearly 200 million years.

Until now, the most heavily feathered fossils tended to be smaller creatures – Yutyrannus huali might have considered many of them tasty hors d'oeuvres. They were small enough to need some form of insulation to help them retain body heat, Sues explains.

Using modern large animals such as elephants as models, however, many researchers suspected that larger animals would have evolved to shed feathers as they grew in size in order to get rid of body heat from their own exertion as they lumbered along in a tropical or semi-tropical climate.

Yet in Y. huali, researchers have uncovered a dinosaur of substantial stature fully feathered. It weighs some 40 times as much as the previous feathered record-holder.

“It's an extraordinary find,” says Sues, who was not a member of the team making the discovery.

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