Birdlike Dinosaur Had Iridescent Feathers, Scientists Say

Caihong juji lived in China about 161 million years ago and may have used its impressive feathers to attract mates. Image credit Velizar Simeonovski Field Museum
The world's most beautiful dinosaur? Newly-found Chinese RAINBOW predator that lived 161 million years ago had stunning iridescent feathers like hummingbirds

17 January, 2018

A newly discovered, bird-like dinosaur fossil from China contains evidence that could add a new accessory to the list: a shaggy ruff of rainbow feathers.

The worldwide team of researchers who described the new dinosaur believe that these features may have something to do with attracting mates.

The long and narrow dinosaur skull is similar to a Velociraptor's, a shape that is unique among other bird-like dinosaurs.

Microscopic organelles - functioning parts within a cell - called melanosomes are responsible for pigmentation. Dongyu Hu, a professor in the College of Paleontology at the Shenyang Normal University, led the study. The plumage on its neck contain what appears to be traces of melanosomes - wide, pigment-containing packets that give feathers their colour. The scientists have named the ancient bird-like dinosaur as Caihong juji, Mandarin for "rainbow with the big crest".

Colorful plumage is used in modern birds to attract mates-the rainbow feathers of Caihong might be a prehistoric version of a peacock's iridescent tail.

"The tail feathers are asymmetrical, but the wing feathers aren't, a weird feature previously unknown among dinosaurs and birds", said Xing Xu from the Chinese Academy of Science, a co-author of the study. "Hummingbirds have bright, iridescent feathers, but if you took a hummingbird feather and smashed it into tiny pieces, you'd only see black dust".

Scientists on Monday announced the discovery of a duck-sized dinosaur with shiny, multicolored feathers that lived in northeastern China during the Jurassic Period.

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During the study, the researchers found some clue of brightly colored plumage.

According to the scientists, the feathers of Caihong had pancake-shaped melanosomes akin to those of modern hummingbirds. The researchers were unable to exactly match Caihong's colors but are confident it had an iridescent glimmer, Greshko writes. "It also had a funky crest of bone sticking up in front of its eyes, which was probably a display structure as well".

"The tail feathers are asymmetrical but wing feathers are not, a freaky feature previously unknown among dinosaurs including birds", said Xu.

But while Caihong's feathers were a first, it had other traits associated with much earlier species of dinosaurs, including the bony crest on its head. As Greshko writes, Caihong is the oldest known example of asymmetrical feathers, suggesting that the trait developed in tails prior to it developing in wings.

It's also the earliest known animal with asymmetrical feathers-a feature used by modern birds to steer when flying. This makes it an odd combination of a fluffy dinosaur with a raptor's shape, Greshko writes.

"Asked what someone might say upon seeing Caihong, University of Texas paleontologist Julia Clarke said, "'Wow!' And if they are anything like me, they might want one as a pet. Researchers compared the melanosome impressions to melanosomes found in living birds and found that they most closely resembled those in the iridescent, rainbow feathers of hummingbirds.

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