Image: Yutyrannus
Brian Choo
Yutyrannus huali, the dinosaur shown in this artist's conception, is thought to have weighed more than 3,000 pounds.
By
updated 4/4/2012 1:54:08 PM ET 2012-04-04T17:54:08

The discovery of a giant meat-eating dinosaur sporting a downy coat has some scientists reimagining the look of Tyrannosaurus rex.

With a killer jaw and sharp claws, T. rex has long been depicted in movies and popular culture as having scaly skin. But the discovery of an earlier relative suggests the king of dinosaurs may have had a softer side.

  1. Science news from NBCNews.com
    1. NOAA
      Cosmic rays may spark Earth's lightning

      All lightning on Earth may have its roots in space, new research suggests.

    2. How our brains can track a 100 mph pitch
    3. Moth found to have ultrasonic hearing
    4. Quantum network could secure Internet

The evidence comes from the unearthing of a new tyrannosaur species in northeastern China that lived 60 million years before T. rex. The fossil record preserved remains of fluffy down, making it the largest feathered dinosaur ever found.

If a T. rex relative had feathers, why not T. rex? Scientists said the evidence is trending in that direction.

"People need to start changing their image of T. rex," said Luis Chiappe, director of the Dinosaur Institute at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, who was not part of the discovery team.

Much smaller dinosaurs with primitive feathers have been excavated in recent years, but this is the first direct sign of a huge, shaggy dinosaur. Scientists have long debated whether gigantic dinosaurs lost their feathers the bigger they got or were just not as extensively covered.

The new tyrannosaur species, Yutyrannus huali, is described in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature. Its name is a blend of Latin and Mandarin, which translates to "beautiful feathered tyrant."

A team of Chinese and Canadian scientists analyzed three well-preserved fossil skeletons — an adult and two juveniles — recovered from a quarry in China's Liaoning Province by a private fossil dealer. Most striking were remains of downlike feathers on the neck and arm. Though coverage was patchy, scientists suspected the species had feathers over much of its body.

It would have felt like touching "long, thick fur," co-author Corwin Sullivan of the Chinese Academy of Sciences said in an email. Another scientist, Thomas Holtz Jr. at the University of Maryland, compared it to the feathers of an emu.

The creature lived about 125 million years ago. Y. huali was 30 feet (9 meters) long and weighed more than a ton. It would have been big enough to reach T. rex's chest.

Image: Yutyrannus skull
Zang Hailong
The fossilized skull of Yutyrannus was found in China's Liaoning Province, a hot spot for dinosaur discoveries.

The dino-fuzz probably provided insulation, though paleontologists can't rule out the possibility that the feathers were also used as camouflage or could be shown off like a peacock's feathery display for mating.

Since T. rex is related to this newfound feathery species, chances are good that T. rex was feathered as well, scientists said. Just don't mistake fuzzy for cuddly. The predatory dinosaur would have been just as menacing.

Having feathers "doesn't make it less threatening or less fearsome," said Holtz, who had no role in the research.

Matthew Lamanna, assistant curator at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, said T. rex most likely was covered in both feathers and scales.

Whatever the coverage of feathers, the latest fossil finds "force us to conceive of tyrannosauroids in a new way," said Julia Clarke at the University of Texas at Austin.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Interactive: Are dinosaurs alive?

Explainer: The world's seven deadliest dinosaurs

  • Copyright 1985 Mark Hallett, "Awakening of Hunger"

    Yeah, it's cliche to say Tyrannosaurus rex was deadly. But the tyrant king was likely true to the billing. Its bone-crushing jaws could splinter prey like toothpicks, after all. And the beast was big, up to 40 feet long, 20 feet tall, and may have topped the scales at nearly 16,000 pounds.

    The king walked on two legs over a vast territory in western North America at the end of the Cretaceous, about 65 million years ago. Scientists wonder whether T. rex was more a lumbering scavenger or a quick and agile predator, but dead or alive, its meals were big, meaty and bloody.

    T. rex wasn't the only deadly dino, however. The globe was filled vicious killers. Click the arrows above to see more.

    — John Roach, msnbc.com contributor

  • Family diner

    Demetrios M. Vital

    Family meals for Majungasaurus crenatissimus were often bloody affairs of the grimmest sort: Kin were the main course. The evidence of its cannibalistic ways comes from telltale tooth marks on Majungasaurus bones that match up perfectly with the size and spacing of teeth in its jaws.

    The 20-foot-long dinosaur stalked the plains of Madagascar about 70 million years ago. At that time, the crime-scene investigators said, pickings were often slim. Their data indicate Majungasaurus fed on dried out "dino jerky" from its plant-eating compatriots as well as members of its own species. Cannibalism was likely just as common among dinosaurs as it is among living animals, but the evidence is rare.

  • Brow beater

    Todd Marshall

    Eocarcharia dinops' brow was swollen into a massive band of bone. The menacing head piece may have been used as a battering ram against rivals and to attract potential mates. Its blade-shape teeth were reserved for disabling live prey and severing their body parts.

    The 110-million-year-old beast and its snout-nosed, gut-and-carcass-scavenging relative Kryptops palaios were discovered in Africa's Sahara Desert. The approximately 7-foot-tall and 25-foot-long duo likely teamed up with a third carnivore and feasted on the long-necked plant-eater Nigersaurus.

  • Vicious rocker

    Parsons

    The toothy Masiakasaurus knopfleri likely speared prey with its forward projecting front teeth and then sliced and tore the captives into chewy chunks with its bladelike rears. This type of tooth arrangement is otherwise unknown in predatory dinosaurs.

    Scientists believe the German Shepherd sized beast feasted on fish, lizards, and other critters on the southern supercontinent Gondwana in the Late Cretaceous period, about 65 to 70 million years ago.

    The first part of this dinosaur's name means "vicious lizard" and the second part is derived from the Dire Straits singer and guitarist Mark Knopfler, whose music inspired the discoverers as they toiled on the African island nation of Madagascar.

  • Biggest carnivore?

    Prof. Rodolfo Coria / Ap

    At about 40 feet long and weighing an estimated 6 tons, Mapusaurus roseae was one of the biggest meat-eating dinosaurs to ever stalk the Earth. Bones of several individuals were discovered in one place, suggesting the giants may have hunted in packs that could have toppled perhaps the largest dinosaur that ever lived — a 100-foot-long plant eater called Argentinosaurus.

    Mapusaurus lived about 100 million years ago and was bigger than well known Tyrannosaurus rex and possibly larger than its older cousin, Gigantosaurus. Its teeth were narrow and blade like, made for slicing its prey. The bones were discovered in the Patagonia region of Argentina.

  • Going green

    MWS

    Falcarius utahensis is the living image of a vicious meat eater trying to go vegetarian. Scientists aren't sure if the bird-like relative of Velociraptor had fully kicked its taste for flesh, but its meat-cutting teeth had shrunk to leaf-cutting size and its gut had expanded sufficiently to ferment plants.

    Falcarius walked on two legs and stood about 4.5 feet tall. Head to tail, it was about 13 feet long and wielded sharp, curved, four-inch long claws — perhaps to grab a bite when it fell off the wagon? The dinosaur lived during the Early Cretaceous, about 125 million years ago, in what is today Utah.

  • Plant ripper

    utah.edu

    No plants were safe from Gryposaurus monumentensis, a big boned, duck-billed dinosaur that could have eaten any vegetation it stumbled across. Its massive skull packed more than 300 teeth for slicing up fibrous greens. Hundreds more replacement teeth rested in its jawbone for the call-up to action.

    The dinosaur lived in the Late Cretaceous, about 75 million years ago on the western side of a giant, shallow ocean that split North America at that time. The plant-munching beast may have reached 30 feet long as an adult and had a 3-foot-long head.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments