01/24/2020

Meet the ‘Dancing Dragon’—A Fierce Winged Dinosaur

12:02 minutes

an illustration of a winged dinosaur with a long tail and a fish in its mouth
An artists rendition of the Wulong bohaiensis. Credit: Ashley Poust

In a delicate piece of shale from coastal China, paleontologists have identified a new species of feathered dinosaur: Wulong bohaiensis, Chinese for “Dancing Dragon.” The house cat-sized dino has fierce talons, feathered wings, and a long, whip-like tail with feathered plumes at the end. 

Ashley Poust, who published a description of the dinosaur in The Anatomical Record, says it’s “hard to imagine” the wings being used for flying. But he says the wings could have been used to arrest leaps or falls, or to hold down prey while killing it, as modern-day birds sometimes do.

In this conversation with Ira, Poust talks more about the dino’s possible lifestyle, and how it fits in with other feathered reptiles.

The skeleton of Wulong bohaiensis was found was remarkably complete. Credit: Ashley Poust

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Segment Guests

Ashley Poust

Ashley Poust is a postdoctoral researcher at the San Diego Natural History Museum in San Diego, California.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. A bit later in the hour, what an investigation of the website clinicaltrials.gov uncovered about drug trial reporting. But first, I’d like to introduce you to the dancing dragon. It has vicious talons, feathered wings, and a whip-like twin feathered tail. And no, it is not a creature from Game of Thrones, but a newly found dinosaur, a bird-like beast packed with feathers and claws and just about the size of a house cat. Here to tell us more is Ashley Poust, a researcher at the San Diego Natural History Museum in California. Welcome to Science Friday, Dr. Poust.

ASHLEY POUST: Thank you. It’s really a pleasure to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Does it have an official name?

ASHLEY POUST: It does, actually. So Wulong bohaiensis. So the genus name really is Wulong, which is the Chinese words for dancing and dragon. And we really got to that because of the pose of this animal. This is a very small, active, little dinosaur. And so we wanted something that kind of reflected that.

IRA FLATOW: Did you find it in a fossil in a certain pose?

ASHLEY POUST: Yeah, so this is the type of dinosaur fossil that’s preserved relatively intact, which is a really sort of amazing thing and really a real pleasure to get to work on. But the consequence of that is that they are twisted into these positions I think assumed when they died or perhaps while they were decomposing. And so this one has its head thrown back over its shoulders in a classic dinosaur death pose, and its arms kind of folded out in front of it almost like a Russian dancer. And it reminded us of the dragon and lion dances from the Chinese New Year, which actually just started.

IRA FLATOW: Now I said this thing is about the size of a house cat with a long tail, but unlike a house cat, this had long talons. It could do a lot of damage, you think.

ASHLEY POUST: Yeah, so actually the house cat comparison is pretty great. So house cats have these retractable claws, right? You know that from having your couch get ruined. But these dinosaurs have really long talons on their feet. And actually, unlike birds, they also have pretty big claws on their hands. So this is definitely a predatory dinosaur, which is reflected in its pointy, little teeth. And its close relatives have even been found with different kinds of animals in their stomachs.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, wow. Now it also had feathered wings. Do you think it could fly then?

ASHLEY POUST: So that’s been a topic of a lot of debate in the community of late. We think that they’re definitely able to use these wings to generate some amount of lift. So they’re able to use the wings in a way, but whether they’re doing that to be more nimble to allow them to be able to maneuver over ground substrate or up into trees, whether they’re actually flying or whether they’re gliding or flapping while they’re falling, there’s just an ongoing discussion about that. And hopefully Wulong is a kind of specimen that maybe can slot into that debate and help others out.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm, but there are other things you can use your wings for, right?

ASHLEY POUST: Absolutely, and so this is where this idea that you mentioned in the beginning about perhaps it’s using it for part of its hunting. Living raptors often, especially hawks and some falcons, will mantle their prey to hide it from other predators so that they won’t try to steal it, which is a really common thing among living birds. And they also can use the pressure of their wings to sort of create more downward force and pin their prey more effectively to the ground, which would then, of course, dovetail very nicely with use of their claws.

So this is an idea that was first proposed back in 2009 by a friend of mine, Denver Fowler, and a group of researchers at Montana State University, where I was a student at the time. And they were looking at why would you still have feathers if you get big, like the close relatives of Wulong, Deinonychus, and velociraptor, which people might be more familiar with. When you get big, you’re definitely not flying. Why keep the feathers? And so they thought maybe this might be a way of understanding the origin of these feathered wings.

IRA FLATOW: Well, let’s talk about that a bit more. So how do you go from having the feathered wings like that and not flying and maybe using it to hold down your prey to a flying animal?

ASHLEY POUST: Yeah, that’s a really intensely interesting thing to a lot of us. I think this transition from dinosaurs to birds has been such a focus of a lot of people’s research, not only because these incredible fossils coming out of China really allow us to drill into that. That’s data we just never had before. But also because these big evolutionary transitions are such an incredible place to query, to get at how evolution actually works and how you might see the origin of incredible things, such as the flight in birds.

So how you get from a wing-like arm to a real wing that’s being used for active flapping flight has been a big discussion. And so we think the early steps are that you have to evolve feathers, because the bird-like wing is dependent on having these [INAUDIBLE] structures that grow out of the skin that enlarge and form the major surface of the wing. And then from that, you have to have both the skeletal muscular ability to move the wing in the right way, and then as well, the wing of a right size to create enough lift.

So several things people have determined as we kind of investigate this, is that dinosaurs have this huge shrinking that went on as they reached the common ancestor of a dinosaur, like Wulong and the living bird. And they also had a pretty interesting set of changes in their brain as they approached the origin of flight. So people are really coming at this question from a lot of different really interesting angles these days.

IRA FLATOW: Speaking of interesting, I understand there’s a very interesting story behind how you came to study this fossil.

ASHLEY POUST: Well, so–

IRA FLATOW: You were led astray by another fossil.

ASHLEY POUST: A little bit. Yeah, one of the issues I think around the world these days, but particularly in China where these incredible dinosaurs are being found is that there’s somewhat of a trade in fossils. People want to buy these things. And of course, my position as a scientist is that the important fossils deserve to be studied and brought out to the public like we’re trying to do with our new dinosaur.

But a lot of times, people will actually alter fossils in order to make them more appealing on the market. And so the first fossil that I had got given, I had a great introduction at the Dalian Natural History Museum, which is a big museum in Northeastern China. They were really, really welcoming, and they said here’s the coolest fossil. We’d love for you to study this. I’d been introduced there by my advisor at Montana State, Dave Varricchio, who was also a co-author in this paper.

And so we sat down with this fossil, and we were looking at it. And I was so intrigued because this was a slab that had not only a dinosaur on it, but another dinosaur and a bird. And so this, we were thinking, oh, this is going to be the biggest news. The more we looked at it, the more we realized this is a bunch of different pieces of things that had been stuck together, and it didn’t belong at all. So that was sort of heartbreaking. We just identified that’s fake. That’s fake. That’s glued together.

And so that really made me gun shy to work on a lot of these fossils. So we took a lot of care in working with Wulong once we were introduced to it. They said, oh, darn, and then they took us back to look at their incredible collection of actual unaltered fossils that they were very thankful turned out to be to be real. And so we worked on Wulong–

IRA FLATOW: So it’s a sort of serendipity. You found it by accident in the back of the collection in some way.

ASHLEY POUST: Yeah, so there’s this concept I think that scientists don’t know what we have in our collections. And it’s true and untrue. So I think that there’s definitely room for discovery, not just out in the field, where hopefully many of us will get the chance to go look for more fossils, but also in museum collections. But that doesn’t mean that people have no idea.

So the scientists in Dalian are pretty smart, and they definitely knew these three or four fossils might be something interesting. But even they didn’t know that it was going to be a new species. So that was a really interesting moment when we finally looked at it, convinced ourselves that it wasn’t fake in any way, and then realized it was a new taxon.

IRA FLATOW: Now I understand you have another fossil in your sights right now.

ASHLEY POUST: Ah, there’s a couple different things that we have going on. So I always like to tell people that this is actually the golden age for finding and describing dinosaurs. And there’s a lot of things behind that. New technologies, the increase in digital databases of museums allow us to find these fossils that are sort of like still hidden back in our archives. And then the biggest thing I think is international cooperation and the ability to work with scientists from around the world like we did with the scientists in Dalian.

So my old advisor, Dave Varricchio and I, now co-worker, we actually have a specimen that we just got accepted to a paper. And I can only say so much, but it’s going to tell us a lot about dinosaur reproduction. And so this is a dinosaur that’s actually really closely associated with some eggs. And we’re working on this with scientists at the Zigong Natural History Museum in southern China.

IRA FLATOW: So I understand there are actually eggs inside this fossil.

ASHLEY POUST: That’s correct. And we presented on this fossil on the past, but we’ve done a lot more work on it. Actually able to sample the eggs themselves and determine where they came from. And [INAUDIBLE] some really neat conclusions. And so that’s a really rare treat, but it highlights how well the preservation of many of these fossils is in China and the value of working with people from around the world.

IRA FLATOW: You say we’re in the golden age of dinosaur discovery. Why is that? Does it have anything to do with younger scientists coming into the field?

ASHLEY POUST: So I definitely think it does, and not just younger scientists, but also scientists of not just one gender and not just one nationality and not just one language. And so I think this opening up of science in general has started to make it into paleontology. And I think that’s only good. Not only is it a joy to work with a broader group of people, but it opens up new ideas and new places to search. So I think that in and of itself would mean it’s a golden age in paleontology.

Additionally, though, this is a time when we’re discovering more than we ever have before. And I think those things are linked. So I always say, the last five years of dinosaur discoveries have yielded more new species than any other five year period in history.

IRA FLATOW: So who’s paying for all this? I always preach follow the money. If you’re finding more things, there must be more people who want to find more things.

ASHLEY POUST: So that’s a good question, and paleontology is not well-known for being the world’s best funded field, right? Talk about particle physics here, so.

IRA FLATOW: That’s why I’m asking here.

ASHLEY POUST: I mean, if you want to use your platform to help us find more dinosaurs, we’d certainly appreciate it. I think there’s been more funding in other countries. I think that the National Science Foundation and other things are really responsible for a lot of this. And you see that, I hope, reflected in a lot more open publishing and scientists being really willing to share their work as widely as we can. It’s always possible, but when it is, I think that’s a really positive development.

IRA FLATOW: A lot of new books coming out. Steve Brusatte had a great book a few years ago.

ASHLEY POUST: That book’s excellent. Yeah, everybody should check that out.

IRA FLATOW: And there’s always interest in dinosaurs and always– I know parenthetically that you also study whales.

ASHLEY POUST: That’s right. So–

IRA FLATOW: I mean, that’s a jump, is it not? That’s a stretch?

ASHLEY POUST: It does seem like a bit of a jump. Well, partly, I think– I hope people– I know that people love dinosaurs because I love dinosaurs. They are fantastic–

IRA FLATOW: They love whales also, don’t they?

ASHLEY POUST: Exactly. But for me, whales tick a lot of the same boxes, and people might say, oh, they’re just whales. They’re alive now, you know? But for me, dinosaurs are these incredible monsters, but they were real. And I think because you can see one and you can see a video of one, you might not realize it, but whales are definitely real monsters. And that doesn’t mean that they’re bad. I don’t mean monster in that sense. I mean, they’re monstrous. They’re different from what we expect. They’re huge.

And the dinosaur we described is tiny, but of course, dinosaurs also include the largest things that ever walked on land. But they’re outsized even by the blue whale that we have alive today. These are animals that have grown the single largest bone that has ever existed on Earth. And that’s the bottom single jawbone of a blue whale.

IRA FLATOW: All right–

ASHLEY POUST: And where I’m at now in San Diego, we have some of the best collections of fossil whales anywhere in the world. And so it’s really a treat to get to work on that and ask some of these same questions. So if you’re interested in how a dinosaur becomes a bird, I think it’s really cool to think about how a walking hoofed carnivorous deer-like animal becomes a whale. And those evolutionary transitions are just insane.

IRA FLATOW: We’re going to have you back, Ashley, to talk about that more.

ASHLEY POUST: I’d love that.

IRA FLATOW: Because that’s great stuff. Ashley is a postdoctoral researcher at the San Diego Natural History Museum. Thank you for taking time to be with us today.

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