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Scientists Discover a Dinosaur with Shiny, Color-Changing Feathers

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Scientists recently announced the discovery of a small, bird-like dinosaur from China which had unusual, colorful feathers.

The scientists named the dinosaur Caihong, the Mandarin word for rainbow. They discovered the nearly complete and almost entirely undamaged fossil in Hebei Province.

Microscopic structures in the fossil suggest that the creature had wide, shiny feathers. The feathers mostly covered the dinosaur’s head and upper body. The colors of those feather would have appeared to change depending on how the light hit them.

The colorful dinosaur lived 161 million years ago during the Jurassic Period of earth’s history.

Chad Eliason is an evolutionary biologist with the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois. He helped write the study announcing the discovery in the scientific publication Nature Communications. Eliason told the Reuters news service that the discovery “suggests a more colorful Jurassic World than we previously imagined.”

The scientists used powerful microscopes to identify the remains of the cell structures responsible for the apparent color of the feathers. The shape of those structures appears to have influenced what color the feathers would have. Round-shaped structures in the Caihong fossil show that it had feathers similar to that of a modern day hummingbird.

Much of Caihong’s body had dark feathers. The shiny, color-changing feathers covered its head and neck. The dinosaur had many bird-like qualities. But researchers doubt that it could actually fly.

Its feathers could have served the purpose of gaining the attention of sexual partners while also providing protection from heat and cold.

Caihong was two-legged and had a long, narrow head with sharp teeth. It had boney crests above its eyes, and it hunted other, smaller animals for food.

Scientists say many dinosaurs had feathers. Birds evolved from small feathered dinosaurs near the end of the Jurassic Period.

A dinosaur of a different feather

Caihong had two kinds of feathers. It also is the earliest-known creature with feathers that did not have the same shape on both sides. This is a physical quality that modern birds have and use to direct themselves while flying.

The unevenly shaped feathers on Caihong were on its tail. This suggests that tail feathers, not arm feathers, were first used to improve movement through the air in flying dinosaurs, scientists said.

Xing Xu is a paleontologist with the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Xing Xu said, “It is extremely similar to some early birds such as Archaeopteryx.” Archaeopteryx is the earliest known bird. It is believed to have lived 150 million years ago.

“To be honest, I am not sure what function the feathers have,” Xing Xu added. “And I don’t think that you can completely exclude the possibility that the feathers helped the animal to get in the air.”

The dinosaur’s full scientific name is Caihong juji, which means “rainbow with a big crest.”

I’m ­Pete Musto.

Will Dunham reported this for the Reuters News Service. Pete Musto adapted it for VOA Learning English. Mario Ritter was the editor. We want to hear from you. What other kinds of strange dinosaurs do you hope scientists will discover? Write to us in the Comments Section or on our Facebook page.

Words in This Story

rainbown. a curved line of different colors that sometimes appears in the sky when the sun shines through rain

fossiln. something, such as a leaf, skeleton, or footprint, that is from a plant or animal which lived in ancient times and that you can see in some rocks

feather(s) – n. any one of the light growths that make up the outer covering of the body of a bird

evolutionaryadj. related to a theory that the differences between modern plants and animals are because of changes that happened by a natural process over a very long time

hummingbirdn. a very small, brightly colored American bird that has wings which beat very fast

neckn. the part of the body between the head and the shoulders

crest(s) – n. a group of decorative feathers at the top of a bird's head

tailn. the part of an animal's body that extends from the animal's back end

paleontologistn. someone whose job is to study the science that deals with the fossils of animals and plants that lived very long ago especially in the time of dinosaurs

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