The wondrous world of dinosaurs

Microraptor had iridescent plumage. Image: Jason Brougham/University of Texas

Iridescent feathers were the ultimate social tool for non-avian dinosaurs such as Microraptor.



The pigeon-sized dinosaur has been in the news for quite a while. In 2008, scientists at the US National Academy of Science described its flight pattern, and in November 2011 a team of palaeontologists found a Microraptor fossil with a bird fossil inside its gut — which proved that the four-winged creature was quite a sophisticated hunter with an appetite for other members of the same species.

But the real predicament lies within its wings. Microraptor is considered a non-avian dinosaur; it is related to the infamous Velociraptor and belongs to the dromaeosaurus group. Micro didn’t soar through skies; in fact, it was a humble glider — some scientists compare its movements to those of a flying squirrel.

After analysing the melanosomes of a Microraptor fossil from the Beijing Museum of Natural History, a team of researchers from US and China has discovered that the dinosaur’s plumage was iridescent. Their analysis also demonstrated that the four-winged non-avian creature that lived 130 million years ago had black and bluish feathers.

“With numerous fossil discoveries of birds and flowered plants, we knew that the Cretaceous was a colourful world, but now we’ve further enhanced that view with Microraptor as the first dinosaur to show iridescent colour,” said Ke-Qin Gao, co-author and researcher at Peking University in Beijing.

But the sophisticated plumage that wasn’t meant to grace the skies, was, in fact, a fancy social tool.

“There’s been a lot of speculation about how the feathers of Microraptor were oriented and whether they formed airfoils for flight or whether they had to do with sexual display. So while we’ve nailed down what colour this animal was, even more importantly, we’ve determined that Microraptor, like many modern birds, most likely used its ornate feathering to give visual social signals, said Mark Norell, one of the paper’s authors and chair of the American Museum of Natural History’s Division of Palaeontology.


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