July 20, 2015
Jungchan Lü (right) with Steve Brusatte with the fossil of Zhenyuanlong suni, a new species of dinosaur with bird-like wings. Photo by Martin Kundrat.

Junchang Lü (right) with Steve Brusatte and the fossil of Zhenyuanlong suni, a new species of dinosaur with bird-like wings. Photo by Martin Kundrat.

SMU alumnus Junchang Lü ’04, one of China’s leading dinosaur experts, has helped identify a new dinosaur species – Zhenyuanlong suni – a cousin to the Velociraptor of Jurassic World fame and the newest clue as to how birds descended from dinosaurs.

The well-preserved fossil of a dinosaur with bird-like wings was unearthed by a farmer in northeastern China and eventually found its way to Lü, a top dinosaur researcher with the Institute of Geology at the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences in Beijing. Lü called in Stephen Brusatte of the University of Edinburgh to aid in the identification process. The two scientists had teamed up previously in the discovery of Qianzhousaurus sinensisa cousin of Tyrannosaur rex whose whose long snout earned it the nickname “Pinocchio rex.”

The newly identified dinosaur is believed to have lived around 125 million years ago in China and likely met its end during a volcanic eruption. It measured over five feet in length, had short arms, a mouthful of sharp teeth and talons. It also sported a complex set of wings covered with colorful feathers, perhaps like those of the modern-day peacock or pheasant. The scientists doubt the dinosaur could fly, so the function of the wings remains unclear.

The nearly complete skeleton suggests that winged dinosaurs were larger and more varied than previously thought.

“The western part of Liaoning Province in China is one of the most famous places in the world for finding dinosaurs,” Lü told CBS News. “The first feathered dinosaurs were found here and now our discovery of Zhenyuanlong indicates that there is an even higher diversity of feathered dinosaurs than we thought. It’s amazing that new feathered dinosaurs are still being found.”

An artist’s impression of Zhenyuanlong suni. This Velociraptor cousin posessed large, complex wings and looked bird-like. Image by Chuang Zhao.

An artist’s impression of Zhenyuanlong suni. This Velociraptor cousin posessed large, complex wings and looked bird-like. Image by Chuang Zhao.

The scientists’ study was published in the journal Scientific Reports on July 16 and was covered around the globe by BBC, CBS, CNN, PBS and other media.

In an interview with BBC News, Brusatte said: “It will blow some people’s minds to realize that those dinosaurs in the movies would have been even weirder, and I think even scarier – like big fluffy birds from hell.”

Lü earned a Ph.D. in geology from SMU in 2004.

“He published a number a papers before, during and after his SMU stay, mostly as an expert on dinosaurs and pterosaurs,” says Dale Winkler, a research professor in the Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences in SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences. “He is a very productive researcher, and we are, of course, very proud of him.”

EXTRAS

> BBC News: Dinosaur find: Velociraptor ancestor was ‘winged dragon’

> CBS News: Newfound dinosaur looked like a bloodthirsty peacock

> CNN: Newly discovered dinosaur had wings, feathers but couldn’t fly

> PBS Newshour: Velociraptor cousin looked like ‘big fluffy bird from hell’

> Edinburgh News: City scientists unearth feathered dinosaur