How did the first feathered dinosaur live?

Discover Caudipteryx, the peacock-like dinosaur that roamed the lands of Asia 125 million years ago

(Image credit: Christophe Hendrickx)

In a time when dinosaurs inhabited the Earth, some colossal creatures towered at nearly 20 metres tall – causing the ground below to shake as they browsed for their food. But taking a look nearer the ground, a very different dinosaur lived below these beasts.

Meet the Caudipteryx, a group of curious-looking dinosaurs only discovered by humans in 1997. Estimated to have lived between 125 to 122 million years ago, the bird-like beings were equipped with long feathers at the end of their arms and tail. While images depict feathered wing-like arms, these would have been too short to be used in flight – this dinosaur spent its days running across the land.

There were two known species within the Caudipteryx genus: zoui and dongi. The zoui species were slight creatures with an estimated weight of just eight kilograms, with relatively long legs and short arms. The dongi were even smaller, and had proportionally less wing. However, it is the tail that gives Caudipteryx its name. The elaborate tail is thought to have been
used for display, and detailed analysis into remains shows that they were likely to have been vibrant in colour. Translating ‘Caudipteryx’ to English, its name simply means ‘tail feather’.

In recent research involving a robotic dinosaur and similarly built ostriches wearing artificial Caudipteryx wings, it is believed that the running style of the dinosaur would have caused its wings to flap at the side of its body. This could have been an evolutionary precursor to flight in some of the planet’s future birds. If this research is accurate, it suggests the need for some early dinosaurs to run before they could fly.

Dinosaur or bird?

Visually, the Caudipteryx appears as a strange mix between bird and dinosaur, but how can we tell which it is? While their symmetrical long feathers are similar to those found on living flightless birds, they held different qualities to those of living and fossilised flying birds. Having analysed their long legs, scientists think that their lives were spent running. However, some have theorised that with their spaced-apart toes, they could have spent their time on Earth wading in water and mud, catching fish like some modern-day garden birds.

Having been classed as an ‘Oviraptor’ (Latin for ‘egg-taker) – a group established in 1976 – Caudipteryx are in a subgroup of feathered dinosaurs. Animals in this group are thought by many to be the origin of birds. Their uncanny resemblance to birds is seen as a significant sign that they share some of the same ancestors.

This article was originally published in How It Works issue 134

For more science and technology articles, pick up the latest copy of How It Works from all good retailers or from our website now. If you have a tablet or smartphone, you can also download the digital version onto your iOS or Android device. To make sure you never miss an issue of How It Works magazine, subscribe today!