What do you see when you picture a baby t-rex? A scaly little monster with razor-sharp claws and killer instincts? A strange mix of a lizard and a chicken popping out of an egg? Whatever you’re imagining, it’s probably a little off base. Researchers have recently put together even more pieces of the t-rex visual puzzle, and the results are astonishing.

The Land Before Time, Baby Edition

Jurassic Park taught us that even dinosaurs started as babies, but it still feels a little strange to think of the kings of prehistoric jungles breaking out of their eggs with tiny little mouths and arms. What is even stranger, however, is how scientists now think those baby dinos look. The theory now is that not only did these babies have gangly teenage arms, they were also born covered in a layer of downy feathers.

When they hatched, baby T. Rexes were likely small, feathered, and maybe even cute. Over the course of their childhood and adolescence, these animals grew up to six pounds (three kilograms) per day for 13 years to reach their eventual gargantuan proportions. And although their little bodies may have been small in comparison to what they would eventually grow to be, T. Rex hatchlings did have one thing to hold over their larger family members, literally. Their arms were more proportionate to their bodies, giving them the ability to grasp and hold prey— an impossibility for the full-size T. Rex.

And it’s not only the baby dino whose picture is being reshaped by these findings. Scientists are now saying that is likely that the feathers didn’t disappear with age, but that the T. Rex may have had a line of feathers along its head and tail through adulthood.

Why Feathers?

It has long been suspected that raptor dinos and their ilk were covered in feathers because they are the ancestors of the birds we know and love today. But in 2014, an international team published findings in the journal Science theorizing that these bird dinosaurs weren’t the only feathered friends roaming the ancient earth.

Pascal Godefroit of the Royal Belgian Institute of Science and the lead author of the study claims that feathers probably were a characteristic of all dinosaurs, not just the ones we know to be related to the bird family. Based on the number of dinosaurs with scales, it is likely that the common ancestor of the dinosaur also had feathers covering its body. The finding that prompted this theory was that of the Kulindadromeus zabaikalicus, a new feathered dinosaur that stems from a different line of ancestry than the raptors.

This new dinosaur not only had feathers, but it also had scales that covered its back and tail. The discovery has led scientists to theorize about the evolution of scales to feathers: the scales of dinosaur reptile ancestors may have evolved into feathers for purposes of insulation. And while these researchers have begun to discover different types of feathers on different dinosaur species, the true purpose of the feather remains relatively unclear, they just know they weren’t used for flight. Even more recently, researchers in China found a dinosaur fossil that not only had a full set of feathers but feathers that were multi-colored and incredibly well preserved. When it comes to dinosaurs, nothing is out of the realm of possibility.  

Dinosaurs might not have had the shiny scaly coats that childhood plastic T. Rex toys had, but that certainly doesn’t make them any less cool. Every new dino discovery is one more step towards really understanding these incredible creatures of the world’s past.