New Sparkling ‘Rainbow’ Dinosaur Was Just Discovered By A Farmer in China

Artist impression of the "rainbow" dinosaur, which was a species of theropod dinosaur. Credit: Velizar Simeonovski, The Field Museum

Dinosaurs are a marvel that continuously fascinates us. They are remanents of a past long gone and a place that we can never truly see with our own eyes (unless we figure out time travel). Humans have been unearthing dinosaur bones for hundreds and maybe even thousands of years as we expanded and used the land. They might have been considered giants or gods by our ancient ancestors.

Today, we know them as creatures that roamed the Earth millions of years ago. As more discoveries are made, we are constantly updating and changing our knowledge of what constitutes a dinosaur. While we may never get a complete picture of dinosaurs, we do know a lot about them. We have pretty good ideas on what some of them ate, how they behaved, and how they might have looked.

We get all of this information because, alongside bones, we have found prints, scales, eggs, fecal matter, and even feathers. Since we know some of the descendants of the dinosaurs, we can use these modern creatures to help inform us about the long gone dinosaurs. One such descendant of the dinosaurs are birds.

Dinosaurs And Birds

When we think of birds, we imagine feathers and wings as they fly through the air. Birds have a very distinct feature that puts them apart from other animals. They have mastered the capability of flight. They lay eggs and are covered in feathers. We have used them to understand the power of flight and develop planes from them. While these features are not unique to birds, they are concentrated among the birds.

These features are also shared with some species of dinosaurs, particularly those that belong to the Theropoda suborder, which includes the T. rex. The theropods are considered the ancestors of the modern avian species. The connection between birds and dinosaurs started in the 19th century with the discovery of the Archaeopteryx lithographicain in Germany. The presence of feathered wings on the fossil was thought to be related to the wings of birds. This sparked interest was aided by other fossil findings.

A specimen of Archaeopteryx lithographica, which was a theropod that sparked the connection between birds and dinosaurs. Credit: H. Raab

Following the discovery in Germany, researchers have uncovered numerous fossils that have feathers and contain bird-like bone structures. Following the 1990s, many fossils were found in China that showed feathers on dinosaurs that did not have wings. These dinosaurs were considered an intermediary species between dinosaurs and birds. Egg fossils from species of the clade Maniraptora were found to be very similar to the eggs of modern birds.

The feathers and eggs were not the only findings that linked dinosaurs as the ancient ancestors of birds. Research on theropods showed that they had complex air sacs that were similar to those of modern birds. CT scans of dinosaurs also showed that their hearts were similar to the hearts of birds and crocodiles, the other descendants of dinosaurs. From reproduction to social structures, there is new evidence coming out to show the similarities of dinosaurs and birds as further support of this evolutionary path.

The evolution of dinosaurs to birds did not happen instantly. It required many steps and transitions as the German fossil had feathered wings but was still mostly a typical dinosaur. Those species that had feathers could not fly and used their plumage for other things. The process was a long and twisting path that needed to test each part of what we could consider the modern bird. once they were also put together, the evolution towards modern birds took off.

The “Rainbow” Dinosaur

A new species of dinosaur was discovered in China and dubbed Caihong juji, which means “rainbow with the big crest”.  Based on a highly preserved fossil of the species, which includes feathers, researchers believe that its head and crest must have been covered in iridescent feathers that were similar to the throat feathers of hummingbirds.

Perfect conditions allowed for a highly preserved fossil of the Caihong juji. Credit: The Field Museum

The fossil was found by a farmer in the Hebei Province of China and was acquired by the Paleontological Museum of Liaoning in February 2014. Their analysis showed that there were feathers used for flight as well as those on the head and crest. They found trace pigments on the feathers, which indicated the iridescent nature of them.

Modern birds use their feathers for flying and mating and other social behaviors. The presence of flying feathers and iridescent feathers indicated that this species of dinosaur used it for similar situations. This is a likely indication that dinosaurs had color vision like birds so that they could take advantage of their colorful plumage.

According to Xing Xu, the co-author of the study, the Caihong species lived in forests and probably moved from tree to tree using its wings. It was not a large dinosaur as it was probably the size of a duck.

This is not the first time that such iridescent was seen as a fossil in 2012 of a Microraptor had iridescent feathers all over its body. This species was also younger as it came 40 million years after the Caihong species.

Besides the importance of seeing such iridescence, the Caihong species is important because it predates the Archaeopteryx species by 10 million years. This time difference makes the Caihong species the oldest known species to have adaptations for flight.

According to bird experts, while the findings are interesting and important, they cannot precisely indicate the purpose of the feathers or even their distribution among the species because we lack enough evidence. It is possible that the feathers were used for something entirely different than social behaviors like mating or fighting for dominance. There are some species of animals that use their coloring to hide, trick, or even evade from others.

As with any new finding, it is important to continue studying and searching for additional fossils that have these features so that we can build a more accurate picture of life as a dinosaur.

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