Don't be fooled by the fossil's slate hue: Newly discovered Caihong juji, a winged dinosaur that roamed what is now China around 161 million years ago, was likely bursting with color-a shock of blue and green around its face, and streaks of orange highlighting its wings and tail. Scientists believe the crest played a significant role in mating, along with the shiny feathers. The idea of an airborne Caihong juji can not be completely dismissed, though the first known birds would not appear until 11 million years after this particular beast perished.
It could be that Caihong's "rainbow" feathers were used to attract mates, just like modern peacocks use their colourful tails.
That's because color isn't only determined by pigment, but by the structure of the melanosomes containing that pigment.
A team of researchers, including scientists from The University of Texas at Austin, are the first to conduct an in-depth study of the dinosaur and describe it. The plumage on its neck contain what appears to be traces of melanosomes - wide, pigment-containing packets that give feathers their colour.
"Hummingbirds have bright, iridescent feathers, but if you took a hummingbird feather and smashed it into tiny pieces, you'd only see black dust", Chad Eliason, an author of the new study, says in a statement.
The fossil of the small dinosaur was found in the northern region of the Hebei Province in north east China.
All those colors are long gone to the human eye, but because feathers owe their color to microscopic anatomy, striking evidence of the dinosaur's plumage is still there to be found.
Their shape determines the colour and Caihong's feathers had pancake-shaped melanosomes, similar to those of vibrantly coloured hummingbirds. The researchers were unable to exactly match Caihong's colors but are confident it had an iridescent glimmer, Greshko writes.
While Caihong is a feathered dinosaur that shares many characteristics with modern birds, Dunham reports that researchers are uncertain if it was capable of getting airborne.
Caihong's were on its tail, not on it's arm feathers - suggesting that the tail was first utilised for flight. While its distinctive feathers were a relatively recent evolution, it had several traits typical of much earlier dinosaurs, including a bony crest on its head.
However, unlike birds today, Caihong's asymmetrical feathers were on its tail, not its wings - a finding that suggests that early birds may have had a different steering or flight style. Of all the bird samples, the hummingbird came closest to the coloring of this unusual dinosaur. "It has a velociraptor-type skull on the body of this very avian, fully feathered, fluffy kind of form".
Julia Clarke, a coauthor and paleontologist at the University of Texas, says that the melanosome database could help solve a number of future scientific puzzles-especially if it continues to grow.