A 125 Million Year Old Dinosaur Looks Exactly Like A Chicken, But Did It Fly?

An international team of paleontologists searching for fossils throughout the northeastern Chinese province of Liaoning recently discovered a new species of dinosaurs and the oldest-known common ancestor of birds.

The best part? Illustrations of the Jianianhualong tengi, the feathered dinosaur that roamed the Earth some 125 million years ago, resemble the imaginary offspring of an enormous, prehistoric chicken mixed with a peacock, albeit missing a full-fledged, vibrant tail.

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The dinosaur, analyzed in a Nature Communications report published Tuesday, reveals a significant moment in the evolution of the bird-like dinosaur group known as troodontids: the growth of aerodynamic, asymmetrical feathers across its body.

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A figure showing the Jianianhualong tengi holotype DLXH 1218. Xu, Currie, Pittman et al. 2017

"Jianianhualong ​is not the oldest fossil with asymmetrical feathers," Michael Pittman, one of the paleontologists from the University of Hong Kong who discovered the three-foot fossil, told Gizmodo. "However, as the only known troodontid with this feather type, the addition of this crucial new data point reveals that the closest common ancestor of birds, troodontids and raptors had this feather type — it is this that pushes back the earliest record of this feather type."

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All this may add another layer to the age-old debate, "which came first, the chicken or the egg?" Now, researchers must wrestle with another question: were chicken-like dinosaurs able to fly?

Whereas today’s chickens aren’t very good flyers, as their heavy bodies make it difficult to use their wings (save for fleeing from a predator), the Jianianhualong tengi may have been able to fly across the plains, mountains and foothills of China and beyond.

The dinosaur’s wings were asymmetrical, with different sized vanes on each side of the body, possibly to allow for better flying and gliding capabilities. Several other dinosaur fossils feature asymmetrical wings, including several ancient creatures who scientists can confirm were unable to fly, like the dromaeosaurid Microraptor. For now, there’s simply no way of knowing.

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A figure showing the asymmetrical wings on the Jianianhualong tengi. Xu, Currie, Pittman et al. 2017

"A big issue is that the wing feathers are not well-preserved at present which is crucial towards assessing flight capability," Pittman said. "The data we have at present is insufficient to comment on its flying ability at this time."

Still, the 125-million-year-old discovery could pave the way for the international research community to discover exactly how birds and their soaring capabilities came into existence. And, perhaps one day, more troodontid fossil findings will reveal whether the oldest looking chickens were, in fact, able to fly.

"These new data will help us to better understand how early asymmetrical feather evolution proceeded and whether this started with aerodynamic or non-aerodynamic beginnings," Pittman concluded.

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