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Velociraptor?s Baby Brother Provides Science with Clues


Prehistoric times produced a pint sized version of the fearsome velociraptor from Jurassic Park. Called a Microraptor, this pigeon sized, four winged dinosaur has provided scientists with proof that dinosaur-birds had iridescent feathers.

Microraptor and its wings

Reconstruction of Microraptor based on older and recent specimens

A fossil revealed patterns of pigment-containing organelles which when compared to those of modern birds indicate that the dinosaur?s plumage had glossy, iridescent colors. This discovery led scientists to conclude that feather displays played a part in the behavior of the earliest form of avian.

Scientists had been trying to establish the reason for the animal?s long, streaming feathers that formed its tail, attempting to align it with aerodynamics. Because of the discovery of the colorful feathers, they now think the unique tail was part of an ornamental and signaling mechanism, similar to courtship seen in modern birds. "The evidence tha Microraptor was largely iridescent suggests that feathers were important for display even relatively early in their evolution" Matt Shawkey, a Science journal paper co-author and biologist at the University of Akron said.

Microraptor wings. Photo credit: Mick Ellison, AMNHMelanosomes, pigment bearing organelles, in fossilized feather imprints were compared by University of Texas at Austin?s paleontologist Jakob Vinther to patterns in living birds. Scientists thus inferred coloration on dinosaurs long since extinct.
The first colors, black, white, grey and reddish, were discerned on Anchiornis. The recently discovered iridescent quality belongs most likely to the Paraves group of dinosaurs that originated at least 140 million years ago and includes Anchiornis which looked a bit like a woodpecker with a reddish top knot, Archaeopteryx with clawed wings discovered in Jurassic limestone in Germany, aforementioned big brother Velociraptor, and birds traversing our own skies today.

Contributors to the research also included the Beijing Museum of Natural History and the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and agencies from the United States and China.