In what is undoubtedly the dinosaur news of the year, we finally have a giant theropod sporting unmistakable feathers. Described in Nature, Yutyrannus - so new Google tries to correct it to Eotyrannus - hails from Early Cretaceous China, and destroys Beipiaosaurus's claim as the largest feathered dinosaur. It's going to take a massive story to top this one this year. Which, naturally, I hope happens.
This is a paleontological jackpot already, but add to it the fact that there are three individuals and they are quite complete and the importance of this discovery is greatly magnified. "Multiple specimens are always great and animals this size being preserved at all are quite rare in the Jehol, so it’s pretty impressive we have three of them," writes Dave Hone.
Creating an image that's sure to inspire paleoartists everywhere, Ed Yong relates an hypothesis on the use of Yutyrannus's feathers from paleontologist and lead author Xu Xing:
Xu speculates that Yutyrannus’s feathers might have been a winter coat. While most giant tyrannosaurs enjoyed warm climates during the late Cretaceous, Yutyrannus lived at a time when the average yearly temperature was a nippy 10 degrees Celsius. Maybe it was the tyrannosaur equivalent of woolly mammoths and woolly rhinos, whose shaggy coats protected them during the Ice Age. “The idea of woolly tyrannosaurs stalking colder climates in the Cretaceous is kinda mind-blowing,” says Witmer.This is that rarest of stories in which it's actually appropriate to invoke the name of T. rex in a headline, as now we have much better evidence that the giant tyrants at the end of the Cretaceous could very well have worn plumage of their own. This will further alienate those who can't stand the thought of the scales of their favorite Mesozoic monsters giving way to feathers, but as someone who has devoted a lot of time over the last six months to studying feathers, I'd encourage you to look at it this way: feathers are by far the most amazing integumentary structure ever evolved. There's no comparison. The tyrant lizards deserved nothing less.
Now excuse me as I go lose myself in Mesozoic reverie. Endorphins, take me away...
More on my new favorite dinosaur:
Green Tea and Velociraptors
Not Exactly Rocket Science
Why Evolution is True
LiveScience by way of HuffPo