New Fossil With 'Squirrely' Tail Suggests All Predatory Dinosaurs May Have Had Feathers

By Chelsea Whyte on July 3, 2012 8:04 PM EDT

dinosaur fossil - ONE TIME USE
Skeleton of the young Sciurumimus as found on a limestone slab. (Photo: H. TischlingerJura Museum Eich)

Most people think of overgrown lizards when they picture a large dinosaur, but a new find may mean that predatory dinosaurs were covered in fluffy feathers.

A 150-million-year-old fossil of a young predatory dinosaur found in the chalk beds of Bavaria has been named Sciurumimus albersdoerferi, which translates to "squirrel-like" in reference to its bushy tail.

This Jurassic Period youngster is a notable find because it was probably newly hatch when it died, giving scientists a rare glimpse at the life of a juvenile fossil, and because it is perhaps the best preserved predatory dinosaur found in Europe.

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It was likely a young megalosaur, a group of large, two-legged meat-eating dinosaurs, reports National Geographic. The hatchling was just 28 inches long and had a large skull, short hind limbs, and long, hairlike plumage on its midsection, back, and tail.

"This is one of the most complete dinosaur skeletons ever found worldwide. When I first saw it, it was hard to believe it was real because it was so well preserved," said Rauhut, according to The Daily Mail. "It looked as if it had been made by someone to hang in their living room. But tests quickly showed it was genuine."

Though some dinosaurs have been thought to have feathers, this striking find upends earlier beliefs that fluffy down was limited to the ancestors of modern-day birds.

"All of the feathered predatory dinosaurs known so far represent close relatives of birds," said study team member Oliver Rauhut, of the Bayerische Staatssammlung für Paläontologie und Geologie, according to the Christian Science Monitor.

"Its plumage may be telling us that all predatory dinosaurs had feathers," he said. "If that is the case, we must abandon all our notions about giant reptiles encased in tough scales."

Feathered-dinosaur remains are sparse because "we only find them in places where conditions were just right for their bodies to be buried and preserved in a way that kept the feathers as well as the bones intact," said paleontologist Corwin Sullivan of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who was not involved in the research, according to National Geographic.

"Even if they might have looked fluffy, they were certainly among the top predators in the food chain," Rauhut said. 

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