Reconstructing dinosaurs from dusty squashed bones takes plenty of imagination. From the lumbering dragons of 19th century illustrations to the scaly lizards of Jurassic Park, scientists don't always get it right, but a new image may just be the most accurate depiction of any dinosaur to date. The drawing is based on the study of exceptionally-preserved feathers from a creature called Anchiornis, a bird-like dinosaur that seems to be a "rough draft" of avian flight.

About the size of a crow, Anchiornis belonged to a family of dinosaurs called paravians, which were the direct ancestors of modern-day birds. As such, it sported feathers all over its small winged body, but according to a study led by researchers at the University of Bristol, Anchiornis' feathers were far more primitive than those seen today.

The scientists studied a particularly well-preserved fossil of the creature, complete with feathers that had fallen away from the body after death and fossilized alongside the animal, giving the team a much clearer imprint of their structure.

From that, the researchers could see that Anchiornis had contoured feathers, with long barbs forking off from a short quill and forming a V-shape. This "unzipped" style is very different from the feathers of modern birds, which have more tightly-zipped vanes to form large surface areas. That might sound minor, but it means this early bird might have had more trouble getting the worm than its modern counterparts.

Along with giving the creature a fluffy plumage, those feathers would have meant Anchiornis wasn't as aerodynamic as modern birds. Its wings wouldn't have been able to create a strong enough lift surface so it probably couldn't fly, but with feathers running down all four of its wings and its long tail, it's likely that the animal could glide. There's also the chance that it couldn't have controlled its body temperature or repel water as effectively as birds do nowadays.

A comparison of fossilized feathers: the "unzipped" style of Anchiornis (left) versus the more tightly-zipped modern feather (right)(Credit: University of Bristol)

The researchers combined this new information about Anchiornis' feathers with previous research on the animal's color patterns, flesh shape and layering of the feathers on the wing. Armed with all that information, they worked with scientific illustrator Rebecca Gelernter to create what they claim is the most accurate depiction of a dinosaur to date.

"The novel aspects of the wing and contour feathers, as well as fully-feathered hands and feet, are added to the depiction," says Evan Saitta, co-author of the study. "Most provocatively, Anchiornis is presented in this artwork climbing in the manner of hoatzin chicks, the only living bird whose juveniles retain a relic of their dinosaurian past, a functional claw. This contrasts [with] much previous art that places paravians perched on top of branches like modern birds. However, such perching is unlikely given the lack of a reversed toe as in modern perching birds and climbing is consistent with the well-developed arms and claws in paravians. Overall, our study provides some new insight into the appearance of dinosaurs, their behavior and physiology, and the evolution of feathers, birds, and powered flight."

The research was published in the journal Paleontology.

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