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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.

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The fossils date to the early Cretaceous period, which spanned roughly 46 million years, beginning about 145 million years ago. They come from a quarry in Liaoning Province, which shares a border with North Korea.

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According to the researchers, two museums in China originally acquired the fossils from a dealer, who was unsure which quarry in the province the specimens came from. But as paleontologists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology prepared the specimens for long-term preservation and study, the fossils' state of preservation and the rock type in which they were embedded helped them locate the likely quarry and rock formations that yielded the specimens.

The feathers on Y. huali “were simple filaments,” notes Xu Xing, a researcher from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology who oversaw the fossils' preparation and is the lead author of a paper formally presenting the find in today's issue of the journal Nature.

“They were more like the fuzzy down of a modern baby chick than the stiff plumes of an adult bird,” he said in a prepared statement.

The climate on Earth during much of the Cretaceous was akin to today's climate in Florida or southern Louisiana. But in the early part of the Cretaceous, when Y. huali scared the stuffing out of lesser creatures, the climate was cooler. This led the team to suggest that perhaps Y. huali did need insulation to retain sufficient body heat, despite its giant size.

Indeed, some researchers have wondered if even the fearsome T. rex, which lived during the latter, warmer part of the Cretaceous, might have had its own coat of many feathers. No evidence for that has emerged, although some speculate that T. rex “chicks” might have started life with a down coat. Now that Y. huali has appeared, the thought of a fuzzy T. rex may have become a bit less far-fetched, some researchers say.

Whatever the outcome of that discussion, Sues notes that fossils have revealed a sartorial splendor in dinosaurs that casts “Jurassic Park's” scaly-skinned, voracious raptors a new light.

In reality, “they are basically chickens from hell,” Sues says with a chuckle.

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