'Rainbow dinosaur' with iridescent feathers lived 161 million years ago

Tomas Mccoy
January 17, 2018

The almost complete Caihong juji fossil unearthed by paleontologist in China is believed to be 161 million years old, and its asymmetrical feathers are similar to the feathers used by bird to steer while flying.

The vibrantly coloured feathers are believed to be over the head, neck and chest.

Eventually, they matched the pancake-shaped cells from Caihong with the shapes of cells in birds alive today. This suggests Caihong had a flashy, rainbow head.

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 is lead author.

A new species of dinosaur, first discovered by a farmer in north east China, likely sported handsome, rainbow-coloured feathers on its head, wings and tail, according to palaeontologists. Scientists are claiming to have traced this phenomenon all the way back to an ancient bird-like dinosaur, which they say used a colorful ring of neck feathers to woo potential suitors 160 million years ago.

"I was shocked by its beautifully preserved feathers, even though I had seen many feathered dinosaur fossils previously", co-author Xing Xu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences told National Geographic.

The new species of dinosaur was identified from a fossil discovered by a farmer in the Hebei Province in northeastern China. "The pigment in the feathers is black, but the shapes of the [cells] that produce the pigment are what make the colors in hummingbird feathers that we see".

However, unlike birds today, Caihong's asymmetrical feathers were on its tail, not its wings - a finding that suggests that early birds may have had a different steering or flight style. "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 freakish feature previously unknown among dinosaurs including birds", Xu says. While its distinctive feathers were a relatively recent evolution, it had several traits typical of much earlier dinosaurs, including a bony crest on its head. The researchers, writing in Nature Communications, report that the iridescent feathers would have resembled those of modern hummingbirds.

Julia Clarke, a professor in the Department of Geological Sciences at the UT Jackson School of Geosciences and the study co-author, informed that the iridescent coloration is linked with sexual selection and birds used those to attract females.

Describing this, the researchers mentioned that the flight controlling might have first evolved with tail feathers during some aerial locomotion. "It has a rather Velociraptor-looking low and long skull with this fully feathered, shaggy kind of plumage and a big fan tail".

"I came out of the project with a whole different set of questions that I wanted answers to-when I open up a drawer full of birds in the Field Museum's collections, now I want to know when those iridescent feathers first developed, and how".

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