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New dinosaur research: Microraptor's feather color revealed

A pigeon-sized, four-winged dinosaur known as Microraptor had black iridescent feathers when it roamed the Earth 130 million years ago, according to research led by a team of American and Chinese scientists that includes Museum researchers. The dinosaur’s fossilized plumage is the earliest record of iridescent feather color. Created by American Museum of Natural History.

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Video transcript

(Mark Norell) We have a paper coming out on Science Week, and it's about the color and the feather configuration on a small, hundred thirty million year old dinosaur call Microraptor from Northeastern China. What our new paper really shows is this phenomena that we call "iridescence", which is a kind of both structural color as well as pigment color that we see in modern birds like grackles and crows evolved long before those animals did in non-avian dinosaurs. Now, whether this is a homologous, meaning it was only one evolution, or it evolved several times, we don't really know. We do know that it evolved several times in living birds, so that it may be just a parallel evolution of this feature. But what it really shows is that these animals signaled visually, a lot like living birds do today. Whenever we see a great specimen like this in a collection, we really try think to about what we can do with it that's outside the ordinary, and this one had these beautiful feather impressions all over it, so one of the first things we thought we would do would be to look at feather coloration because that's something that's been the focus of a lot of different labs' work over the last couple of years. But another one is really like, you know, feather architecture, and the configuration of feathers across the body, because there's been a lot of speculation on how the feathers were oriented in Microraptor and whether or not these formed air foils or whether or not these had to do with something like sexual selection and sexual display, so I think that we really nailed and we conclusively have shown what color this animal was, it was dark-colored, and it was iridescent, we have also shown the tail feathers are in a different configuration than previously have been thought, that instead of being just a lollypop, single blade, there's actually two feathers that stick out pretty far on the end of tail, and this is a common motif that one sees in both birds alive today as well as fossil birds and now in non-avian dinosaurs that they have these almost peacock-tail kind of things with long feathers sticking off the end of the tail that undoubtably are used for display. The work is really the result of a highly collaborative team of people spread across the planet, in China, in the United States, and elsewhere, that we've really worked hard in putting this whole thing together to give us a really new look of an animal that was pretty poorly known to us. (Mick Ellison) My role was to do the imaging for the paper and that included taking photographs of the specimen and mapping out the skeleton and ultimately doing a reconstruction, a drawing of the animal, how it may have appeared when it was alive. If you saw it today, superficially, you may think that you're looking at a crow-sized, or a pigeon-sized bird, but you'd instantly know after that this is something very unusual. It's very exciting to feel like I maybe, somewhat close to visualizing what this animal may have looked like. (Mark Norell) One of the things that really drives me as a paleontologist is not really the answer, it's the process. And when we look at something like a dinosaur, but has feathers on it, and it's preserved on a slab of rock, you know, one of the immediate things you would think of is, "Wow, I wonder what color those feathers were." and just as we were able to put together a team of people to be able to figure that out, is really what keeps me going as a scientist, it's less of the answer, it's more of the process.