The new dinosaur species was named Caihong juji, which means "rainbow with a big crest" in Mandarin, because the well-preserved fossil indicated that the dinosaur had iridescent feathers on its head, neck, chest and around the base of its tail. Early examples of birds like the Archaeopteryx are believed to have evolved from much smaller feathered dinosaurs. The idea of an airborne Caihong juji can not be completely dismissed, though the first known birds would not appear until 11 million years after this particular beast perished. This suggests Caihong had a flashy, rainbow head.
Melanosomes are the cells that contain pigment and give animals their colour.
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. The plumage might have been for mating, and could also have provided insulation.
"The tail feathers are asymmetrical but wing feathers not, a freakish feature previously unknown among dinosaurs including birds", explained co-author Xing Xu of the Chinese Academy of Science.
"Hummingbirds have bright, iridescent feathers, but if you took a hummingbird feather and smashed it into tiny pieces, you'd only see black dust", Chad Eliason, an author of the new study, says in a statement.
A global team of scientists discovered new bird-like dinosaur in the North-East of China, in the Hebei Province.
During the study, the researchers found some clue of brightly colored plumage.
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Their shape determines the colour and Caihong's feathers had pancake-shaped melanosomes, similar to those of vibrantly coloured hummingbirds. "It also had a funky crest of bone sticking up in front of its eyes, which was probably a display structure as well", said palaeontologist Steve Brusatte, who reviewed the study before publication.
However, unlike birds today, Caihong's asymmetrical feathers were on its tail, not its wings - a finding that suggests that early birds may have had a different steering or flight style. The Caihong had many bird characteristics but scientists say it was unlikely to have gotten off the ground. A comparative analysis of these melanosomes resulted in a close match with the iridescent, rainbow-patterned feathers found in hummingbirds.
The dinosaur marks the earliest appearance discovered so far of asymmetrical feathers.
Other interesting features of the dinosaur are the bony crest on its snout, a long and narrow skull, and its short forelimbs that recall modern birds.
"I came out of the project with a whole different set of questions that I wanted answers to-when I open up a drawer full of birds in the Field Museum's collections, now I want to know when those iridescent feathers first developed, and how".
"Asked what someone might say upon seeing Caihong, University of Texas paleontologist Julia Clarke said, "'Wow!' And if they are anything like me, they might want one as a pet. "It has a velociraptor-type skull on the body of this very avian, fully feathered, fluffy kind of form".
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