A rainbow coloured feathered dinosaur fossil has been discovered in China

Emmett Rice
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 skull of Caihong juji.

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

Dongyu Hu, a professor in the College of Paleontology at the Shenyang Normal University is lead author.

Using powerful microscopes, scientists found organelles - structures within a cell - that are responsible for the pigmentation of feathers (called melanosomes).

A almost complete skeleton of Caihong juji - a name that means "rainbow with the big crest" in Mandarin - was discovered by a farmer in China's Hebei Province in 2014.

"It is extremely similar to some early birds such as Archaeopteryx", Xing Xu, a paleontologist from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told Reuters.

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The feathers would have been particularly vibrant on its head, neck and chest, with colours like those seen in hummingbird feathers.

Jointly published by scientists from China, the United States and Belgium, the findings were based on a fossil unearthed in the Manchu autonomous county of Qinglong, Hebei Province.

All those colors are long gone to the human eye, but because feathers owe their color to microscopic anatomy, striking evidence of the dinosaur's plumage is still there to be found. It's due to their pancake shape and distribution that the feathers exhibit iridescence (the ability to change color as the angle shifts). By matching the melanosomes of the Caihong juji with those of modern birds, they were able to determine the colors. Scientists also found asymmetrical feathers on its tail.

There are other elements that are more odd, like the presence of asymmetrical feathers on its tail rather than its wingtips, where they appear today to help birds fly.

"The tail feathers are asymmetrical but wing feathers are not, a freakish feature previously unknown among dinosaurs including birds", said Xu. The Caihong juji had melanosomes shaped like flattened circles, which are quite similar to the ones found in a hummingbird's iridescent feathers. The bony crest represents a more ancient dinosaur feature, the University of Texas at Austin noted, while the iridescence, which could have helped it signal to potential mates, is newer. It's the earliest known creature with asymmetrical feathers, a trait used by birds to steer when flying.

Caihong is part of a group of small, bird-like dinosaurs that lived in China during the Jurassic, but it stands out even among its closest relatives, Xu said. "It has a velociraptor-type skull on the body of this very avian, fully feathered, fluffy kind of form".

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.

Other reports by Free-Prsite

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