Tyrannosaurs are arguably the most famous members of the great dinosaur pantheon. Their traditional look has been set in stone in the public eye for decades, being immortalised in various media, of a giant scaly lizard with tiny arms and a massive head full of sharp, banana shaped teeth. However what if I were to tell you that this picture isn’t completely accurate, and that at least some tyrannosaurs were in fact a lot more on the soft and fluffy side! While it’s still being debated to this day whether the mighty Tyrannosaurus Rex had feathers (a story for another blog!), there was another tyrannosaur that not only possessed feathers, but was completely covered in them! Revealed to the world in 2012 Yutyrannus huali (meaning “Beautiful Feathered Tyrant” in a mix of Mandarin and Latin) shaked pre-existing ideas about Tyrannosaurs to the core.
Yutyrannus was discovered in the Yixian formation, in the Liaoning Province of China by a Chinese palaeontologist named professor Xing Xu. This particular corner of the world is extremely rich in dinosaur fossils, mostly dating to the Early Cretaceous period (125 million years ago). A large majority of the feathered dinosaur finds in the last few decades originated from this area. Xu is a big name in the world of contemporary palaeontology as described and named a lot of these feathered dinos, such as the “four winged” Microraptor and another feathered tyrannosaur called Dilong. The Yutyrannus fossils discovered by Xu and his team consisted of an adult and two juveniles, all of them almost complete. This is remarkable as tyrannosaurs are often only known from incomplete fossils. So in this case we have a vividly detailed picture of this particular animal.
One of the most surprising observations about Yutyrannus is not only that it had feathers, but that this was a big animal. Previously other known feathered tyrannosaurs, such as Dilong and Guanlong (both also discovered in China), were relatively small; ranging around the sizes as modern big cats. However Yutyrannus bucked this trend by growing up to 9 metres long, 3 metres tall and weighing up to 1 and a half tonnes. This makes Yutyrannus the largest animal with direct definitive evidence of feathers ever discovered. While other dinosaurs like Therizinosaurus and Gigantoraptor are likely to have had feathers, there’s been no direct evidence found yet, so Yutyrannus keeps the crown for now. Unlike other large tyrannosaurs Yutyrannus shares many features with other early tyrannosaurs, such as possessing three fingers instead of two and a lack of a specialised weight-bearing middle toe (used by later tyrannosaurs to support their weight). By comparing its anatomy with other tyrannosaurs it was also deduced that Yutyrannus was not a direct ancestor to T-Rex, but instead belonged to a family of tyrannosaurs that split off during the Early Cretaceous, meaning that Yutyrannus was essentially T-Rexs great great uncle. Unlike later Tyrannosaurs Yutyrannus also possessed a small, midline crest at the end of its snout. This could have been used to attract a mate or to signal other individuals, saying for example “I’m the biggest and baddest of the Yutyrannus! Keep away!”. As the fossils were of an adult and two juveniles this could potentially be a family group. It has been theorised that tyrannosaurs may have lived in groups, so perhaps this find represents the sad end of a mum or dad raising its offspring.
The feathers themselves have been found preserved in patches across the whole body of all 3 fossils. In life they were relatively simple “proto-feathers”, consisting of long simple filament like structures. These filaments would have intertwined to produce a fluffy down; somewhere between the down on a baby chicken and the longer, fibrous feathers of an emu. The primary function is likely to have been to keep Yutyrannus warm. A study by Amiot et. al. in 2011 looked at oxygen isotope compositions found in reptile fossils from East Asia. These seem to indicate that at the place and time where Yutyrannus lived was a relatively cold, compared to the hothouse that was the rest of the Mesozoic, so a feathery coat would have helped to keep an active hunter like Yutyrannus at the right temperature. Other possible usages of this coat of feathers could have been to assist with attracting mates, as has been speculated to have been the case in other feathered dinosaurs (e.g. Caudipteryx), and any shed feathers could have been used to line their nests, as it is employed by modern birds. It has even been suggested that the colour of the feathered coat would have helped Yutyrannus camouflage itself against its surroundings, a trick that is employed by most predators today. Some reconstructions have given Yutyrannus a fully white coat to blend in with a snowy background (like a polar bear). While this is a neat bit of speculation, it can’t be proven until any melanosomes that may be preserved are examined. If so then palaeontologists would be able to discover the colour of a tyrannosaur for the first time!
A lot of criticism of these feathered dinosaurs, and particularly with ideas about feathers existing on dinosaurs that were previously thought to be scaly, is that it makes dinosaurs “less cool looking” and more like giant turkeys. However I think that Yutyrannus is an excellent example of how feathers can enhance the interest in dinosaurs, providing another side to how we see these great lizards. An animal like this would certainly make a cute pet when it’s young. However, like pet owners who buy young tiger cubs, it’ll grow up over the years into a giant unmanageable carnivore, leaving the owner thinking “I REALLY didn’t think this through!”
Xu, X., Wang, K., Zhang, K. et al. A gigantic feathered dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous of China. Nature 484, 92–95 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature10906
AMNH, “Get to Know a Dino: Yutyrannus huali”, American Museum of Natural History, Apr. 11, 2016, amnh.org/explore/news-blogs/on-exhibit-posts/get-to-know-a-dino-yutyrannus-huali
Amiot, Romain et al. “Oxygen isotopes of East Asian dinosaurs reveal exceptionally cold Early Cretaceous climates.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America vol. 108,13 (2011): 5179-83. doi:10.1073/pnas.1011369108
Tarpy, Cliff, “Liaoning Province—China’s Extraordinary Fossil Site”, National Geographic, nationalgeographic.com/science/prehistoric-world/china-fossils/