The microraptor was a pigeon-sized, four-winged dinosaur that lived about 120 million years ago. Scientists reveal in a new study, published in Science, that the microraptor had iridescent plumage with a glossy sheen, similar to the feathers of a modern crow and grackles. Unique features of the microraptor include the dinosaur's four wings and its long tail fan, which was narrow and adorned with a pair of streamer feathers.
Scientists were able to determine what microraptor's plumage must have looked like by comparing the patterns of pigment-containing organelles from a microraptor fossil to those in modern birds. The fossil is the earliest record of iridescent color in feathers.
H. Richard Lane, program director in the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Division of Earth Sciences, which funded the research, says, "Specifying the color and iridescence of feathers in avian dinosaurs was not possible 20 years ago. This development, in combination with the arrangement of tail feathers, is leading to a deeper understanding of the early development of avian plumage signalling."
The researchers also say the reconstruction of the tiny flying dinosaur will help scientists figure out how dinosaurs began the transition to flight. In the past, scientists proposed aerodynamic functions for the dinosaur's feathery features, such as its tail, forewing shape and hind limbs. The tail was once thought to have a shape more like that of a paper airplane and was thought to help the microraptor generate lift. The tail fan is actually much narrower with two elongate feathers off its tip. This suggests the tail fan was more likely used for courtship and social interactions.
Julia Clarke, a paper co-author and paleontologist at The University of Texas at Austin, says, "Most aspects of early dinosaur feathering continue to be interpreted as fundamentally aerodynamic, optimized for some aspect of aerial locomotion. Some of these structures were clearly ancestral characteristics that arose for other functions and stuck around, while others may be linked to display behaviors or signaling of mate quality. 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."
Mark Norell, one of the paper's authors and chair of the Museum's Division of Paleontology, explains their reconstruction of microraptor. Take a look:
Images: Artist's renderings by Jason Brougham/UT-Austin (top and middle) / reconstruction image by Mick Ellison/AMNH (bottom)