These days, a new feathered dinosaur may seem just another addition to the growing catalog of these ancient beasts. But the last fossil was not just feathered, it was deliciously colorful. Conserved sublimely, the creature was nicknamed Caihong juji, which is Mandarin for "rainbow with a large crest", in homage to the microscopic structures in the fossil that suggest that this Jurassic dino wore a layer of iridescent feathers, Michael Greshko reports for National Geographic .
The new dinosaur species was identified from a fossil discovered by a farmer in Hebei Province in northeastern China. Approximately the size of a crow, the creature lived approximately 161 million years ago. Although pretty, its colors probably had a purpose. The researchers believe that the plumage of the rainbow could have been used for social or sexual behavior. As Greshko reports, it was probably similar to the tail of a modern peacock.
"I was surprised by their beautifully preserved feathers, although I had seen many fossils of dinosaurs feathered before", Xing Xu, paleontologist and co-author of the new study in the jounral Nature describing the fossil, says Greshko .
Researchers examined the fossil using the scanning electron microscope (SEM), which can detect small details of a surface . As Laura Geggel writes for Live Science t the instrument revealed melanosomes or microscopic structures that are responsible for the pigmentation of modern bird feathers. The shape of these structures determines the color of the feathers of the creatures.
When studying these structures, the researchers discovered that Caihong feathers were mostly dark. But his head and neck had pancake-shaped melanosomes arranged in sheets, which are similar to those of the iridescent plumage of modern hummingbirds, Will Dunham writes for Reuters. This suggests that Caihong had a striking rainbow head. The researchers could not exactly match Caihong colors, but they trust that it had an iridescent sheen, Greshko writes.
"Hummingbirds have bright, iridescent feathers, but if you took a hummingbird feather and broke it into tiny pieces, you would only see black dust," says Chad Eliason, author of the new study, in a statement . "The pigment in the feathers is black, but the shapes of the melanosomes that produce that pigment are what make the colors in hummingbird feathers we see."
The Caihong feathers were probably fluffy and elegant, with a mixture of feather-shaped aerodynamic pennies feathers. The tail feathers were asymmetrical, Dunham reports, a key aerodynamic feature that allows modern birds to fly while flying. As Greshko writes, Caihong is the oldest known example of asymmetric feathers, suggesting that the trait developed in tails before developing into wings.
While Caihong is a feathered dinosaur that shares many characteristics with modern birds, Dunham reports that researchers are not sure if he was able to fly through the air. In contrast, the two-legged predator was more like velociraptors with sharp teeth and bony brow ridges. This makes it a strange combination of a fluffy dinosaur shaped like a raptor, writes Greshko.
"To be honest, I'm not sure what function feathers have, and I do not think you can completely exclude the possibility that the feathers helped the animal to get into the air," paleontologist Xing Xu told Dunham. the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Caihong is not the first iridescent dinosaur to be discovered. Researchers believe that Microraptor a dinosaur of similar size that lived 120 million years ago, was completely covered in dark feathers with an iridescent blue luster, similar to modern crows.
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