Caihong juji, the chicken-sized dinosaur, lived in China about 161 million years ago. Its rainbow feathers, which were probably used to attract mates-just like the iridescent plumes of peacocks-were a stunning discovery.
The long and narrow dinosaur skull is similar to a Velociraptor's, a shape that is unique among other bird-like dinosaurs.
Caihong juji is Mandarin for "rainbow with the big crest".
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To determine the relationship between the melanosomes' shapes and particular colors, the researchers consulted a database, begun by researchers now at the University of Ghent, that holds thousands of scanning electron micrographs of melanosomes from modern birds in collections around the world. They are called melanosomes and are vestiges of pigment sacs. According to a press release, the researchers believe the dino used it's flashy neck feathers and bony crest on its snout to attract mates.
Scientists announced that there once was a bird-like dinosaur the size of a crow that had colorful, iridescent feathers in northeastern China. "Hummingbirds have bright, iridescent feathers, but if you took a hummingbird feather and smashed it into tiny pieces, you'd only see black dust". Palaeontologist Dongyu Hu, the lead author of the new study, says the newly discovered dinosaur contained a curious mix of ancient and modern features, including iridescent plumage seen in some living birds. "The pigment in the feathers is black, but the shapes of the [cells] that produce the pigment are what make the colors in hummingbird feathers that we see".
"There are crests associated with sexual selection previously known only in earlier dinosaurs, and yet there is also a bird mechanism of signalling or display appearing for the first time", said Clarke.
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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. The Caihong had many bird characteristics but scientists say it was unlikely to have gotten off the ground.
The dinosaur marks the earliest appearance discovered so far of asymmetrical feathers.
On one hand, it has a bony crest that is typically found on dinosaurs from earlier eras. "This suggests that controlling [flight] might have first evolved with tail feathers during some kind of aerial locomotion".
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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. "It has a velociraptor-type skull on the body of this very avian, fully feathered, fluffy kind of form". "This combination of traits is unusual", said Julia Clarke, a co-author of the study and professor at the University of Texas Jackson School of Geosciences. The researchers compared these melanosome impressions to those from living birds and say that more than any other species, they resemble the melanosomes of vibrantly colored hummingbirds.