Imagine a duck-sized bird-like creature with iridescent feathers and a Velociraptor-like skull – as haunting a sight as it seems, this dinosaur used to live in China some 161 million years ago.
And now, owing to its colourful plumage, the creature has been named Caihong – the Mandarin word for rainbow; think of the colours similar to those seen in feathers of hummingbirds!
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Scientists observed microscopic structures in a preserved fossil, that revealed that its feathers were particularly vibrant upon its head, neck and chest. This was deduced after analysis of the shape and structure of the creature's melanosomes — the parts of cells that contain pigment.
Discovered in the Chinese province of Hebei, it 'suggests a more colourful Jurassic world than we previously imagined,' claims biologist Chad Eliason, a postdoctoral researcher at the Field Museum in Chicago. "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," he added.
Researchers claimed that the rest of the rainbow dinosaur's body had dark feathers and while it possessed many bird-like features, there are still doubts about its flying capabilities. It has also been found that the colourful plumage could have been a mating cue, like in peacocks.
"It is extremely similar to some early birds such as Archaeopteryx," said palaeontologist Xing Xu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who is also the co-author of the study.
"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," Xu said.
The Velociraptor-like skull and sharp teeth could have helped it in hunting small mammals and lizards. With crests above its eyes, it was probably the only ancient animal with asymmetrical feathers, a trait used by birds to steer when flying. In Caihong's case, they were on the tail.
Gliding from tree to tree, Caihong would have weighed roughly a pound, as believed by researchers. Xing Xu also shared, "I was shocked by its beautifully preserved feathers, even though I had seen many feathered dinosaur fossils previously."
Julia Clarke, a professor of vertebrate palaeontology at the University of Texas at Austin and also co-researchers, said: "This combination of traits is rather unusual. It has a Velociraptor-type skull on the body of this very avian, fully feathered, fluffy kind of form."
Researchers explained this mix of old and new traits as an example of mosaic evolution – that is when parts of an animal evolve and rest stay the same.
However, Caihong isn't the first dinosaur recorded to have iridescent feathers. Microraptor, a four-winged dinosaur also had gleaming feathers, as Live Science had previously reported. But its existence was 40 million years after Caihong's, making the latter the oldest one to have such vibrant plumage, according to researchers.
The full study was published in the journal Nature Communications.