New dinosaur species with colorful feathers discovered in China

Calvin Saunders
January 17, 2018

Don't be fooled by the fossil's slate hue: Newly discovered Caihong juji, a winged dinosaur that roamed what is now China around 161 million years ago, was likely bursting with color-a shock of blue and green around its face, and streaks of orange highlighting its wings and tail. The idea of an airborne Caihong juji can not be completely dismissed, though the first known birds would not appear until 11 million years after this particular beast perished.

The next step is figuring out what factors influenced Caihong to evolve such a distinctive look, rainbow feathers and all, said co-author Chad Eliason, a postdoctoral associate at the Field Museum of Natural History.

To determine the relationship between the melanosomes' shapes and particular colors, the researchers consulted a database, begun by researchers now at the University of Ghent, that holds thousands of scanning electron micrographs of melanosomes from modern birds in collections around the world.

An worldwide team led by researchers from Shenyang Normal University in China and the University of Texas at Austin studied the dino fossil, which was discovered by a Chinese farmer in 2014. They are called melanosomes and are vestiges of pigment sacs. They dubbed it Caihong juji-a name that means "rainbow with the big crest" in Mandarin-and think the dino used its flashy neck feathers and a bony crest on its snout to attract mates.

The dinosaur's rainbow feathers might be a prehistoric version of a peacock's multicolored tail, one example of colorful plumage used by modern birds to attract mates. After studying the fossilized remains of the bird-like dinosaur, scientists discovered that the dinosaur had colorful rainbow-like feathers. "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". The researchers were unable to exactly match Caihong's colors but are confident it had an iridescent glimmer, Greshko writes. While it possessed many bird-like characteristics, researchers doubted whether it could actually fly.

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"The tail feathers are asymmetrical but wing feathers are not, a freaky feature previously unknown among dinosaurs including birds", Xu says. But its head and neck had pancake-shaped melanosomes ordered into sheets, which are similar to those of modern hummingbirds' iridescent plumage, Will Dunham writes for Reuters.

Caihong is the earliest known animal with asymmetrical feathers and the earliest evidence to date of a species that may have had bright iridescent feathers. It had crests above its eyes that looked like bony eyebrows.

"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".

"This combination of traits is unusual", said Clarke. "It has a rather Velociraptor-looking low and long skull with this fully feathered, shaggy kind of plumage and a big fan tail".

Other reports by MaliBehiribAe

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