Scientists have recently announced that a mysterious fossil, which was discovered three years ago by a Chinese farmer, is actually a duck-sized, new species of dinosaur called Caihong juji.

The feather display of the dinosaur used to shine like a live rainbow, according to the researchers who studied it.

The fossil was uncovered in China’s Hebei province and was later handed over to the Paleontological Museum of Liaoning. A research team then carefully analyzed the tiny melanosomes, which are the cell parts that contain pigment, in the fossil.

The scientists, who discovered that the Caihong had a flamboyant plumage, published their study in the journal Nature Communications on Jan. 15.

Iridescence In Birds

Scientists are still not very clear about the origin of iridescence in birds, but the newly discovered dinosaur gives a fair idea. The fossil, which is 161 million years old, is the earliest known example of iridescence in a feathered dinosaur.

Birds with iridescent features now, such as the male birds of paradise, attract mates with their flashy colors. It is also a tactic that other non-avian species of the animal kingdom use. For instance, peacock spiders also use their tiny iridescent scales to mate.

The Caihong has also helped researchers gain more insight into other traits that birds developed. It had tail feathers, a long wing, a crest on its head, and could not fly. The Caihong is also the earliest known example of a dinosaur that had asymmetrical tail feathers indicating that the vane on its one side was larger than the one on the opposite.

A Colorful Dinosaur

The pigment and shape of melanosomes reportedly determine the colors in animals.

“Hummingbirds have bright, iridescent feathers, but if you took a hummingbird feather and smashed it into tiny pieces, you’d only see black dust,” said Chad Eliason, who is a researcher at the Field Museum in Chicago. “The pigment in the feathers is black, but the shapes of the melanosomes that produce that pigment are what make the colors in hummingbird feathers that we see.”

The research team studying the Caihong analyzed 66 points on the fossil, with the help of a microscope, to observe the remains of melanosome shapes. They detected melanosomes, which were circular and flat in shape, organized in columns on the dinosaur’s tail, chest, and head.

The detected melanosomes were comparable to modern birds that have the same shaped melanosomes in their iridescent feathers. The discovery suggests that portions of the dinosaur’s feather coat were multicolored and luminous like that of the throat of a hummingbird.

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