Birds are the last remaining dinosaurs. They’re also some of the most vibrantly colored animals on Earth. A new study in Nature Communications reveals that iridescent feathers go way back—a newly discovered species of dinosaur from 161 million years ago had rainbow coloring.
Caihong juji was tiny, about the size of a duck, with a bony crest on its head and long, ribbon-like feathers. And, based on analysis of its fossilized feathers, the feathers on its head, wings, and tail were probably iridescent, with colors that shimmered and shifted in the light. Its name reflects its appearance—in Mandarin, it means, “rainbow with the big crest.” The new species, which was first discovered by a farmer in northeastern China, was described by an international team of scientists led by Dongyu Hu, a professor in the College of Paleontology at the Shenyang Normal University in China.
“When you look at the fossil record, you normally only see hard parts like bone, but every once in a while, soft parts like feathers are preserved, and you get a glimpse into the past,” says Chad Eliason, a postdoctoral researcher at The Field Museum and one of the study’s authors. Eliason, who began work on the project as a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, added, “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.”
When the scientists examined the feathers under powerful microscopes, they could see the imprints of melanosomes, the parts of cells that contain pigment. For the most part, the pigment that was once present was long gone, but the physical structure of the melanosomes remained. As it turns out, that was enough for scientists to be able to tell what color the feathers were.
That’s because color isn’t only determined by pigment, but by the structure of the melanosomes containing that pigment. Differently shaped melanosomes reflect light in different colors. “Hummingbirds have bright, iridescent feathers, but if you took a hummingbird feather and smashed it into tiny pieces, you’d only see black dust. 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,” explains Eliason.
Here is the balance of the story, from the Field Musem.