Crow size, bird like 'rainbow' dinosaur discovered

Scientists believe the crest played a significant role in mating, along with the shiny feathers.

Caihong juji was a study in contrasts.

From the Jurassic era, the researchers named the bird Caihong, the Mandarin word for rainbow. By looking at the feathers of C. juji with a scanning electron microscope, a team led by China's Shenyang Normal University was able to speculate about its once-dazzling coloration.

A new species of dinosaur, first discovered by a farmer in north east China, likely sported attractive, rainbow-coloured feathers on its head, wings and tail, according to palaeontologists. It's much more likely that its feathers functioned as insulation and helped attract mates.

The colorful display of feathers common among hummingbirds has roots in a bird-like Chinese dinosaur from 161 million years ago, a new study finds.

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

The slab of rock from China's Hebei Province where the dinosaur was discovered by a farmer in 2014 contained a almost complete skeleton surrounded by impressions made by feathers.

During the study, the researchers found some clue of brightly colored plumage. The fossil had pancake-shaped melanosomes that were similar to hummingbirds - which have iridescent feathers. By matching the melanosomes of the Caihong juji with those of modern birds, they were able to determine the colors. Crests were also found above the eyes of Caihong.

In addition to being the oldest example of a species with rainbow feathers, the newly discovered dinosaur is the earliest known animal with asymmetrical feathers, a feature that allows modern birds to steer or turn while flying.

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 researchers stated that the dinosaur had iridescent feathers, which is still present on some species of modern birds.

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.

Caihong is part of a group of small, bird-like dinosaurs that lived in China during the Jurassic, Xu said, but it stands out even among its closest relatives. Caihong's were on its tail, suggesting tail feathers, not arm feathers, were first utilized for aerodynamic locomotion.

"When we put these data on the evolutionary tree, we recognize two different ways of creating iridescent color in small raptor dinosaurs before the origin of birds", says co-author Julia Clarke, a paleontologist at the University of Texas at Austin. "It has a velociraptor-type skull on the body of this very avian, fully feathered, fluffy kind of form". 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.

  • Marlene Weaver