Microraptor fossil
This Microraptor fossil is preserved at China's Shandong Tianyu Museum of Nature. Image: Hello, I am Bruce/Flickr/CC BY-SA

A team of Chinese and American scientists have found that Microraptor, a small four winged dinosaur that went extinct about 130 million years ago, was likely black and almost certainly had glossy, iridescent feathers. Until now, the coloring of extinct creatures was a matter of pure speculation. That may no longer be the case.

The size of a pigeon

Microaptor was about the size of a modern pigeon. The extinct creature had two sets of wings, one set on its upper limbs, and a second smaller set on its legs. Although resembling a modern-day bird, Microraptor is considered to be part of a non- avian group of dinosaurs called dromaeosaurs. The classification also includes the Velociraptor, made famous in “Jurassic Park.”

‘A colorful world’

Ke-Qin Gao, from Peking University in Beijing, wrote:

“With numerous fossil discoveries of birds and flowered plants, we knew that the Cretaceous was a colorful world, but now we’ve further enhanced that view with Microraptor as the first dinosaur to show iridescent color. Just a few years ago it would have been inconceivable for us to have imagined doing a study like this.”

The shape of melansomes

The study was published Thursday in the journal “Science.” It explains how, by scanning fossils of feathers with an electron microscope, melansomes — tiny bundles of pigments about 1/100th the width of a human hair — are revealed. By comparing the melansomes with those of modern birds, researchers have found that the shapes and arrangements of the melansomes represent specific colors. And a specific layering of malansomes indicates glossiness.

Iridescence for social use, not flight

The report says that Microraptor’s shiny feathers were very much like those of the modern crow, whose size it also approximates. Microraptor is the earliest known creature to display iridescent feathers. The report speculated that the shiny feathers likely had more to do with attracting mates than with flight, if the creature ever actually did fly.

University of Akron biologist Matthew D. Shawkey said:

“Iridescence is widespread in modern birds and is frequently used in displays. Our evidence that Microraptor was largely iridescent thus suggests that feathers were important for display, even relatively early in their evolution.”

Dr. Julia A. Clarke, a paleontologist at the University of Texas at Austin, implied that the social aspects of the shiny feathers may have been more important to the creature’s existence than flight:

“But as any birder will tell you, feather colors and shapes may also be tied with complex behavioral repertoires and, if anything, may be costly in terms of aerodynamics.”

May not have been nocturnal

Paleontologist Mark A. Norell, of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, said the findings may dispel previously-held notions that Microraptor was nocturnal. Dark glossy feathers are not found on modern night birds.

A breakthrough

Norell sees the study as a breakthrough in terms of visualizing these extinct creatures:

“This study gives us an unprecedented glimpse at what this animal looked like when it was alive.”

Sources

Science Codex
Discover magazine 
New York Times

 

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