Rainbow-Feathered, Bird-Like Dinosaur Found in China Rewrites Earth's History

Tuesday, 16 January 2018 - 9:58AM
Tuesday, 16 January 2018 - 9:58AM
Rainbow-Feathered, Bird-Like Dinosaur Found in China Rewrites Earth's History
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Image credit: Illustration by Velizar Simeonovski, The Field Museum/Handout

We spend so much time looking up at the skies, it's easy to forget that our own planet hosts some pretty strange-looking creatures, too. We're not just talking about that guy your sister brought home to Christmas dinner.

A newly discovered species in China might have been the most visually festive, cheer-inducing dinosaur to ever roam this planet—a rainbow feathered, crow-like dinosaur from Northeastern China that lived during the Jurassic Period, 161 million years ago. Fittingly, the scientists who discovered it named the creature Caihong, the word for rainbow in Mandarin. Its full scientific name is Caihong juji, or "rainbow with a big crest."

The Caihong was discovered in the form of a nearly complete fossil discovered in China's Hebei Province. Microscopic structures in the fossil show that the Caihong had iridescent, multicolored feathers on its head, neck and chest that shimmered and changed in the sun. A two-legged predator with a skull and sharp teeth that resembled a Velociraptor, the Caihong likely ate small mammals and lizards.

"Here we report a distinctive new Yanliao theropod species bearing prominent lacrimal crests, bony ornaments previously known from more basal theropods," researcher Chad Eliason of the Field Museum in Chicago, said as part of a study published in the journal Nature Communications.

"Nanostructures, interpreted as melanosomes, are morphologically similar to organized, platelet-shaped organelles that produce bright iridescent colors in extant birds. The new species indicates the presence of bony ornaments, feather color and flight-related features consistent with proposed rapid character evolution and significant diversity in signaling and locomotor strategies near bird origins."

Those nanostructures called melanosomes explain how the creature came to possess such festive plumage. As their shape determines the color of its feathers, and Caihong's feathers had pancake-shaped melanosomes similar to those found in hummingbirds, it's easy to compare the two creatures based on how their feathers reflect light.

The Caihong is also the earliest-known creature with asymmetrical feathers, which birds use to steer while airborne. As Caihong's were on its tail, the creature likely used its tail feathers to fly. Despite this discovery, scientists are not certain that the creature actually managed to get airborne. It's much more likely that its feathers functioned as insulation and helped attract mates.

In other recent news, scientists were left baffled by a dinosaur-like corpse found at an abandoned subway station in India. The corpse was preserved to the point that it still had some flesh on it, which by all conventional scientific wisdom should be completely impossible.

A week before that, scientists found an insect that drank dinosaur blood, preserved in amber. Jurassic Park, much?

Japanese scientists also published new research suggesting that the likelihood of an asteroid causing extinction is so slim it likely didn't happen. There's still much to discover about these species, from how they lived to why they died out, that we can't help but keep digging.

Science News