A dinosaur with a beautiful plumage on its head has been discovered, showing us that iridescent feathers go a long way back in history.
Named Caihong juji, which means “rainbow with the big crest” in Mandarin, the creature lived 161 million years ago during the Jurassic Period and was found in northeastern China. It was about the size of a duck and had a bony crest on its head.
A study describing the creature is published in Nature Communications. In it, an international team of scientists examined fossilized feathers from the creature that were found by a farmer in northeastern China.
“When you look at the fossil record, you normally only see hard parts like bone, but every once in a while, soft parts like feathers are preserved, and you get a glimpse into the past,” said Chad Eliason, a postdoctoral researcher at The Field Museum and one of the study’s authors, in a statement.
“The preservation of this dinosaur is incredible, we were really excited when we realized the level of detail we were able to see on the feathers.”
Studying the features under a microscope, the team were able to see parts of cells that contain pigment, known as melanosomes. Although the pigment was mostly gone, the shape of the melanosomes was enough for the researchers to work out the color of the creature’s feathers.
They found that Caihong was most similar to modern hummingbirds, with a mix of blue, green, and yellow-orange feathers adorning its head. Its feathers were also found to be asymmetrical, a trait that allows modern birds to steer while flying. Caihong was flightless, though, so it likely just used its feathers and colors to keep warm and attract mates.
It was also found to have a skull like a velociraptor while its body was similar to that of birds, traits associated with much earlier species of dinosaur. Julia Clarke, a co-author of the study from the University of Texas at Austin, said this was “rather unusual”.
This points towards something called mosaic evolution, an idea that different traits can evolve separately. This creature may tell us more about how different features evolved over time. And it gives us a colorful view of what the world may have looked like 161 million years ago.