Scientists discover 26ft 'bird' dinosaur

By DAVID DERBYSHIRE

Last updated at 18:47 13 June 2007


With claws like giant meathooks, a powerful turtle-like beak and a feathered body the size of a double-deck bus, the Gigantoraptor is the stuff of nightmares.



Resembling a cross between an outsize eagle and a giant ostrich, the dinosaur weighed about 1.4 tonnes and stood at twice the height of a man - making it the largest feathered animal ever discovered.

Scientists who found the latest addition to the dinosaur family tree in China admit that they are astonished by its bizarre appearance and monstrous size.

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gigantoraptor

"It had no teeth and had a beak. Its forelimbs were very long and we believe it had feathers," said Dr Xu Xing of the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology who described the new dinosaur in Nature.

Fossilised bones from the creature were unearthed in the Erlian basin in Inner Mongolia in April 2005. The scientists had originally thought they had found tyrannosaur bones, as they were so large.

A reconstruction of its skeleton revealed that it was around 26 feet long and around 12 feet tall. Its feathers were likely for show and for keeping its eggs warm, Dr Xu added.

"We think it's the largest feathered animal ever to have been discovered," he said.

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gigantoraptor

It has always been assumed that meat-eating dinosaurs got smaller as they evolved bird-like characteristics. But the Gigantoraptor erlianensis, which lived 85 million years ago - towards the end of the dinosaur's reign on the Earth - evolved into a giant.

Researchers believe it shared the same ancestor and belonged to the same family as the Oviraptor, a bird-like flightless dinosaur weighing less than 4.5lb. Other feathered, bird-like dinosaurs rarely weighed more than 88lb - which means the Gigantoraptor was about 35 times heavier.

The largest known feathered animal before the Chinese discovery was the half-tonne Stirton's Thunder Bird, which lived in Australia more than six million years ago.

"It's a giant dinosaur that looked very much like a bird, whereas from what we have known before, bird-like dinosaurs were very, very small. Large dinosaurs are usually not bird-like. So this Gigantoraptor was an exception," Dr Xu.

"It was a very surprising discovery, not at all what we expected," he said. "So we spent a lot of time investigating the fossils which is why it took us so long to announce the results."

According to lines of arrested growth detected on its bones, the newly discovered dinosaur died as a young adult in its 11th year of life.

It had both herbivorous features - a small head and long neck - but also carnivorous ones - sharp claws for tearing meat - and could likely run fast on its long, powerful legs, Dr Xu said.

"Of course, there's no way of knowing for sure," he added.

Its site of discovery, near Erenhot on the Chinese-Mongolian border, is known for fossils and calls itself "dinosaur town".

The partial skeleton included pieces of the beak, vertebrae, limb bones, right shoulder blade and pelvis.

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