Zhenyuanlong – A Media Blitz Missed Opportunity

Earlier we learned that the winged pre-tyrannosaur, Zhenyuanlong (Lu and Brusatte 2015, Fig. 2) was originally considered a dromaeosaur, but nests in the large reptile tree (Fig. 1) as an Early Cretaceous tyrannosaur ancestor. It is also a sister to another theropod that was once considered a dromaeosaur, Tianyuraptor (Zheng et al. 2010) and both are not far from Ornitholestes, which is basal to the four-winged pseudo-bird, Microraptor.

Figure 2. The Dinosauria subset of the large reptile tree as of February 5, 2016. Here Proceratosaurus nests with several former long-snouted tyrannosaurs now closer to spinosaurs and allosaurs.

Figure 1. The Dinosauria subset of the large reptile tree as of February 5, 2016. Here Zhenyuanlong nests with Tianyuraptor basal to Tyrannosaurus, not with dromaeosaurs.

I thought it would be interesting
to see what some of the headlines had to say at the time of the Zhenyuanlong publication announcement, none of which were critical, but simply reported the news.

You know how the media loves to add “cousin of T-rez” to their headlines.
This was a missed opportunity.

Figure 3. Zhenyuanlong reconstructed in lateral view. Something behind the pelvis could be the remains of an egg, but needs further study. Both sets of wing feathers are superimposed here. Click to enlarge.

Figure 2. Zhenyuanlong reconstructed in lateral view. Something behind the pelvis could be the remains of an egg, but needs further study. Both sets of wing feathers are superimposed here. Click to enlarge. That sure looks more like a tyrannosaur skull than a velociraptor skull. And the fact that it is longer than the cervicals and longer than half the presacrals keeps it in the tyrannosaur clade.

The original paper (Lü and Brusatte 2015)
reported“A large, short-armed, winged dromaeosaurid.”

Wikipedia
reports“Zhenyuanlong suni was a mid-sized dromaeosaurid comparable in length to the similar Tianyuraptor.”

Paleofile (National Geographic)
reports, “A cousin of the famous Velociraptor, the newly-named Zhenyuanlong belongs to a group of dinosaurs already well-known to have had protofeathers. Zhenyuanlong was large compared to other dromaeosaurs found around the same time and place, and the dinosaur had relatively shorter arms than its close relatives.  and Brusatte write, they indicate Zhenyuanlong evolved from flying ancestors and maintained the plumage through a kind of evolutionary inertia. Then again, long arm feathers can still be useful in giving dinosaurs a better grip on inclined surfaces while running as well as keeping small prey down.

Evolutionary Creationism
reports, “Is this bird kind? Is this dinosaur kind? Clearly fossils such as this break down that naive concept of kind by the fact they stubbornly refuse to fit into an arbitrary classification, which is what you would expect from a transitional fossil, after all.”

Sci-News.com
reports, “The species is a close cousin of the famous Velociraptor and is the largest dinosaur ever to have a set of bird-like wings.”

The Register
reports, “Scientists today have announced details of a newly-discovered dinosaur that was more than a bit like the dragons of legend. the skeleton depicted below represents “an aberrant and rare animal compared to the vast majority of other Liaoning dromaeosaurids, due to its large body size and proportionally tiny forearms. The dino also had a long, feathered, tail, a pronounced crest, a hairy body and decent teeth, an unusual combination that led Brusatte to give it the “fluffy feathered poodle from hell” label.”

The list of traits
Zhenyuanlong shares with tyrannosaurs vs. dromaeosaurs is here. The addition of about a dozen theropods since the addition of Zhenyuanlong to the large reptile tree has not changed the tree topology (Fig. 1). Whenever a scientist announces that a taxon is an aberrant member of one clade, it probably belongs in another clade. At least, that has been my experience so far. Earlier we looked at nine clades that produced flapping bird-like members, only one of which survived to the present.

Figure 1. Click to enlarge. Here is the subset of the large reptile tree focused on theropods. To the right are the nine taxa that took on bird-like traits.

Figure 3. Click to enlarge. Here is an earlier (now incomplete, see above) subset of the large reptile tree focused on theropods. To the right are the nine taxa that took on bird-like traits.

References
Lü J and Brusatte SL 2015. A large, short-armed, winged dromaeosaurid (Dinosauria: Theropoda) from the Early Cretaceous of China and its implications for feather evolution. Nature. Scientific Reports 5, 11775; doi: 10.1038/srep11775.

Zheng, X-T, Xu X, You H-L, Zhao Q and Dong, Z-M 2010. “A short-armed dromaeosaurid from the Jehol Group of China with implications for early dromaeosaurid evolution”Proceedings of the Royal Society B 277 (1679): 211–217.

wiki/Zhenyuanlong

 

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