A team of paleontologists reports the discovery of the remains of a small 161 million-year-old dinosaur, whose head and torso were covered with multicolored feathers. The details of this study were published in the Journal Nature Communications.
The fossil, the size of a modern duck, has been discovered in northeastern China. It has been named Caihong Juji, which could translate into “rainbow with a big ridge” in Mandarin. This little feathered dinosaur would have lived in the forests of what would become China, “hovering from tree to tree to hunt lizards and other small mammals,” as reported by Xing Xu, a paleontologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
The animal is distinguished by its very colorful feathers. The team of researchers explains indeed having detected the presence in the fossil of cells called melanosomes, which contain pigments of colors. It is difficult to say with certainty what colors were these feathers, but the data collected suggest many similarities with the modern hummingbird, even though the bone structure of the dinosaur is more like that of a velociraptor.
Further study will be needed to understand how and why the animal has such a distinctive and unusual set of features. For researchers, however, it is very likely that these colorful feathers were used in courtship displays to attract sexual partners. “Iridescent coloration is well known to be linked to sexual selection and signaling, and we report its earliest evidence in dinosaurs,” says researcher Julia Clarke, from the University of Texas Jackson School of Geosciences.
In addition to coloring the Jurassic ecosystems a little further, this new fossil intrigues paleontologists by the fact that it has both “old” and “modern” characteristics. The bony crest is indeed a characteristic usually seen in dinosaurs of earlier eras, while the feathers of its neck may here represent the first known occurrence of iridescence, similar to that found in a variety of species of live birds today.