A newly-discovered feathered dinosaur that lived 67 million years ago is one of the last known surviving raptor species, researchers have found.
Paleontologists say that the Dineobellator notohesperus, which lived in New Mexico, was a “small, lightly built predator” with a tail function similar to that of a cat.
They said the findings, published in the journal Scientific Reports, offer a snapshot of life in the American Southwest near the end of the reign of the dinosaurs.
Steven Jasinski, of the University of Pennsylvania, led the work to describe the new discovery, collaborating with doctoral adviser Peter Dodson, also of the university.
In 2008, Robert Sullivan, from the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science in Albuquerque, found fossils of the new species in rocks of the San Juan Basin in New Mexico.
Along with his field team of Mr Jasinski and James Nikas, he collected the specimen, which was recovered in its entirety over four field seasons.
Researchers chose the official name Dineobellator notohesperus, meaning “Navajo warrior from the Southwest”, in recognition of the people who now live in the same region where the raptor once walked.
Remains show the Dineobellator stood at about three-and-a-half feet and was between six and seven feet long, while bones from the forearm show quill nobs – small bumps where features would be anchored by ligaments – which indicates the raptor had feathers.
Other features include large claws, which may have been useful for holding on to prey, and a tail that was flexible at its base, allowing the rest of the tail to remain stiff.
Mr Jasinski said: “Think of what happens with a cat’s tail as it is running.
“While the tail itself remains straight, it is also whipping around constantly as the animal is changing direction.
“A stiff tail that is highly mobile at its base allows for increased agility and changes in direction, and potentially aided Dineobellator in pursuing prey, especially in more open habitats.”
This new discovery provides a better picture of the biology of North American dromaeosaurid dinosaurs, according to the researchers.
Mr Jasinski said that the more evidence they find of members possessing feathers, the more likely it is that all of the dromaeosaurids had them.
Following the discovery, Mr Jasinski said he plans to continue field research in New Mexico – with the hope of finding more fossils.
“It was with a lot of searching and a bit of luck that this dinosaur was found weathering out of a small hillside,” he said.
“We do so much hiking and it is easy to overlook something or simply walk on the wrong side of a hill and miss something.
“We hope that the more we search, the better chance we have of finding more of Dineobellator or the other dinosaurs it lived alongside.”