Science

Chinese 'rainbow dinosaur' had iridescent feathers like hummingbirds

An illustration of a reconstruction of the iridescent dinosaur which had rainbow feathers, named Caihong juji, unearthed in China. Illustration by Velizar Simeonovski, The Field Museum/Handout via REUTERS.

An illustration of a reconstruction of the iridescent dinosaur which had rainbow feathers, named Caihong juji, unearthed in China. Illustration by Velizar Simeonovski, The Field Museum/Handout via REUTERS.   | Photo Credit: HANDOUT

more-in

Much of its body had dark, feathers, but ribbon-like iridescent feathers covered its head and neck.

Scientists on Monday announced the discovery of a crow-sized, bird-like dinosaur with colorful feathers from northeastern China that lived 161 million years ago during the Jurassic Period.

They named it Caihong, the Mandarin word for rainbow. Microscopic structures in the exquisitely preserved, nearly complete fossil unearthed in Hebei Province indicated that it boasted iridescent feathers, particularly on its head, neck and chest, with colors that shimmered and shifted in the light, like those of hummingbirds.

The discovery “suggests a more colorful Jurassic World than we previously imagined,” said evolutionary biologist Chad Eliason of the Field Museum in Chicago, one of the researchers in the study published in the journal Nature Communications.

Using powerful microscopes, the scientists detected within the feathers the remnants of organelles called melanosomes responsible for pigmentation. Their shape determines the color. Caihong's feathers had pancake-shaped melanosomes similar to those of hummingbirds with iridescent feathers.

Much of its body had dark feathers, but ribbon-like iridescent feathers covered its head and neck. While it possessed many bird-like characteristics, the researchers doubted it could actually get airborne. Its plumage could have attracted mates while also providing insulation.

Caihong was a two-legged predator with a Velociraptor-like skull and sharp teeth, probably hunting small mammals and lizards. Caihong had fuzzy feathers and pennaceous ones, those that look like writing quills. It is the earliest-known creature with asymmetrical feathers, a trait used by birds to steer when flying.

“It is extremely similar to some early birds such as Archaeopteryx,” said paleontologist Xing Xu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, referring to the earliest-known bird, which lived 150 million years ago. “Its forelimbs were configured like wings. To be honest, I am not sure what function the feathers have, and I don't think that you can completely exclude the possibility that the feathers helped the animal to get in the air.”

The dinosaur's full scientific name, Caihong juji, means "rainbow with a big crest.”

Why you should pay for quality journalism - Click to know more

Recommended for you
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Jan 19, 2020 4:22:17 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/science/chinese-rainbow-dinosaur-had-iridescent-feathers-like-hummingbirds/article22449151.ece

Next Story