Little ‘Rainbow’ Dinosaur Discovered by Farmer in China

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Little ‘Rainbow’ Dinosaur Discovered by Farmer in China

 Little 'Rainbow' Dinosaur Discovered by Farmer in China
C. juji prepares to snatch its prey.

Credit: Zhao Chuang

Despite its fearsome, Velociraptor-like skull, a 161-million-year-old dinosaur the size of a duck would have been a shining, shimmering and splendid sight to behold — mostly because it sported gleaming, iridescent feathers that were rainbow-colored, a new study finds.

Iridescent feathers glistened on the dinosaur’s head, wings and tail, according to an analysis of the shape and structure of the creature’s melanosomes, the parts of cells that contain pigment.

“The preservation of this dinosaur is incredible — we were really excited when we realized the level of detail we were able to see on the feathers,” study co-researcher Chad Eliason, a postdoctoral researcher at the Field Museum in Chicago, said in a statement. [See images and illustrations of the iridescent dinosaur]

A farmer in northeastern China’s Hebei Province discovered the fossil, and the Paleontological Museum of Liaoning in China acquired the find in 2014. After discovering its iridescence and noting the unique bony crest on top of the dinosaur’s head, researchers gave it a colorful name — Caihong juji— which is Mandarin for “rainbow with the big crest.”

The scientists discovered the dinosaur’s iridescence and colorful nature by examining its feathers using a scanning electron microscope (SEM). Incredibly, the SEM analysis showed imprints of melanosomes in the fossil. The organic pigment once contained in the melanosomes is long gone, but the structure of the cell parts revealed the feathers’ original colors, the researchers said. That’s because differently shaped melanosomes reflect light in different ways.

Photos and drawings of the incredibly detailed <em>C. juji</em> fossil.

Photos and drawings of the incredibly detailed C. juji fossil.

Credit: Yu et al., 2018

Hummingbirds have bright, iridescent feathers, but if you took a hummingbird feather and smashed it into tiny pieces, you’d only see black dust,” Eliason said. “The pigment in the feathers is black, but the shapes of the melanosomes that produce that pigment are what make the colors in hummingbird feathers that we see.”

The pancake-shaped melanosomes in C. juji matched those in hummingbirds, indicating that the Jurassic-age dinosaur had iridescent feathers, the researchers said.

C. juji isn’t the first dinosaur on record to have iridescent feathers;Microraptor, a four-winged dinosaur also sported gleaming feathers, Live Science previously reported. But that dinosaur lived about 40 million years after C. juji, so the newly identified dinosaur is by far the oldest dinosaur on record to flaunt iridescent plumage, the researchers said.

C. juji is also the oldest animal on record to have asymmetrical feathers, which help modern birds steer while flying. However, unlike modern birds, whose asymmetrical feathers are on their wing tips, C. juji sported these lopsided feathers on its tail. That, combined with the fact that C. juji likely couldn’t fly, led the researchers to conclude the dinosaur likely used its feathers to attract mates and keep warm.

This “bizarre” feature has never been seen before in either dinosaurs or birds, which evolved from dinosaurs, said study co-researcher Xing Xu, a researcher at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. This suggests that tail feathers may have played a role in early, controlled flight, Xu said.

But not all of C. juji’s features are out of the blue. Some of its traits, such as its bony head crest, resemble those on other dinosaurs, researchers said.

“This combination of traits is rather unusual,” study co-researcher Julia Clarke, a professor of vertebrate paleontology at the University of Texas at Austin, said in the statement. “It has a Velociraptor-type skull on the body of this very avian, fully feathered, fluffy kind of form.” [Tiny Dino: Reconstructing Microraptor’s Black Feathers]

This mixture of old and new traits is an example of mosaic evolution, when some parts of an animal evolve, but others stay the same, the researchers said.

The study was published online today (Jan. 15) in the journal Nature Communications.

Original article on Live Science.

Amazing Images: The Best Science Photos of the Week

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Amazing Images: The Best Science Photos of the Week

 Each week we find the most interesting and informative articles we can and along the way we uncover amazing and cool images. Here you’ll discover 10 incredible photos and the stories behind them.

Deep-Sea Alien:

Imagine this fearsome sight: an ink-black shark with gnarly, needle-like teeth; creepy, glass-like eyes; a glowing belly and a potentially extendable jaw. That’s what scientists saw when they pulled up this rare creature, along with four of its pals.

[Full Story: ‘Alien’ Shark with Goblin-Like Jaws Hauled Up from the Deep Sea]

The Blackest Black:

Male birds of paradise have specialized feathers that reflect back only the barest amount of light, creating a light-sucking matte effect.

[Full Story: The ‘Black Hole’ Optical Illusion of the Bird of Paradise Explained]

Bizarre Hitmen:

These killer spiders look like birds and strike like ninjas. New research suggests there’s way more of them than scientists thought.

[Full Story: Pelican Spiders Are the Weirdest-Looking Assassins You’ll Ever See]

Disturbing Robot:

This dirt-dispersing robot-baby torso will crawl out of the lab and into your nightmares.

[Full Story: Why Scientists Just Created the Creepiest Robot Baby You’ll Ever See]

Strange Swirling Droplet:

A viral GIF shows a single drop of liquid spinning like a glorious galaxy until it suddenly evaporates. Why? Good question.

[Full Story: Even Chemists Are Baffled by This GIF of a Droplet Spiraling to Its Doom]

Layers of Ice:

The newfound sheets are buried by just a few feet of Martian dirt in some places, meaning it might be accessible to future crewed missions.

[Full Story: Huge Glaciers Found Hiding Beneath Mars Surface]

In Fossilized Color:

Fossilized eye tissue in a 120-million-year-old bird has revealed that this ancient creature could likely see in color.

[Full Story: This Bird ‘Eyeball’ Survived 120 Million Years]

Surviving the Cold:

Why did these alligators stick their noses out of the water during last week’s cold snap?

[Full Story: Alligators ‘Snorkel’ to Survive Ice-Covered Swamp]

Unexpected Savior:

A marine biologist was surprised when a humpback whale started lifting her out of the water — and even more surprised when she saw what it was protecting her from.

[Full Story: This Humpback Whale Saved a Woman’s Life, But Probably Not on Purpose]


As the Arctic blast continues to roil the Eastern Seaboard with gusty winds and frigid temperatures, at least four thresher sharks have been found frozen off the coast of Cape Cod.

[Full Story: Frozen Sharks Washing Up on Cape Cod]

Chameleons’ Secret Glow Comes from Their Bones

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Chameleons’ Secret Glow Comes from Their Bones

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Chameleons' Secret Glow Comes from Their Bones

No bones about it — chameleons’ fluorescent crest patterns are powered by glow from the lizards’ skulls.

Credit: David Prötzel (ZSM/LMU)

Blending seamlessly into one’s surroundings is known as being “chameleon-like” for a good reason — chameleons shift the colors and patterns of their skin to hide from predators in plain sight, or to communicate during social interactions with other chameleons.

But there’s a secret, illuminated layer to chameleons’ colorful signaling: Scientists recently discovered that the lizards’ bones, particularly on their heads and faces, fluoresce through their skin, creating glow-in-the-dark patterns.

“Chameleons are already famed for their exceptional eyes and visual communication, and now they are among the first known terrestrial squamates [scaled reptiles] that display and likely use fluorescence,” the scientists wrote in the study. [Photos: How Chameleons Change Color]

Biologists have long known that bones glow under ultraviolet (UV) light, but the researchers were astonished to learn that chameleons could harness this characteristic to display visible fluorescent patterns through their skin, study co-author Frank Glaw, a herpetology curator at the Bavarian State Collection of Zoology (ZSM) in Munich, Germany, said in a statement.

“That animals use this phenomenon to fluoresce themselves has surprised us and was previously completely unknown,” Glaw said.

A panther chameleon (<i>Furcifer pardalis</i>) from Madagascar puts its best face forward.
A panther chameleon (Furcifer pardalis) from Madagascar puts its best face forward.

Credit: David Prötzel (ZSM/LMU)


Fluorescence, in which special structures glow in the presence of light, differs from bioluminescence, a process that describes light generated by a chemical reaction between compounds in an animal’s body. Fireflies, some types of fungi and numerous deep-sea creatures are bioluminescent, while fluorescent animals include scorpionscoralsjellyfish, a rare type of sea turtle, and now, chameleons.

The study’s authors looked at 160 specimens representing 31 species in the Calumna genus, a group of chameleons native to Madagascar, and 165 specimens from 20 species of the Furcifer genus, found in Madagascar and parts of Africa. They photographed living animals in their habitats as well as preserved specimens, using UV light to illuminate the chameleons and reveal their glowing patterns.

Next, they turned to micro-computed tomography — 3D X-ray imaging on the microscopic level — to literally connect the dots, matching the glowing spots in the patterns to raised bumps in the lizards’ bones known as tubercles, which provided the source of the glow.

In the brown leaf chameleon (<i>Brookesia superciliaris</i>), tubercles on its skeleton generate glowing patterns of dots that are visible through its skin.

In the brown leaf chameleon (Brookesia superciliaris), tubercles on its skeleton generate glowing patterns of dots that are visible through its skin.

Credit: David Prötzel (ZSM/LMU)


Nearly all the species revealed previously unseen blue patterns on their skin when under UV light, the researchers discovered. Most of the lizards displayed patterning on their heads, but some showed fluorescent markings across their bodies, the study’s first author David Prötzel, a ZSM doctoral student, said in the statement. The patterns appeared blue because the lizards’ thin outer layer of skin serves as a filter, nudging the fluorescence toward the blue end of the spectrum, according to the study.

The thin skin stretched over the bumps serves as a window, allowing UV light to reach the bone and then enabling the shine to reflect through the skin. In shadowy, humid forest habitats, intermittently-visible fluorescent patterns could allow the lizards to signal each other without drawing the attention of predators, the study authors wrote.

Patterns tended to cluster around the chameleons’ eyes and the front of their heads, areas known to be important for communication between individuals. On average, male specimens across species displayed more patterning than females; while it is still uncertain how the chameleons may use fluorescence, this male-skew suggests it may play a role in sexual selection, though further study will be required to say for sure, the scientists explained.

“Fluorescence in terrestrial vertebrates has been underestimated until now, and its role in the evolution of ornamentation remains largely unexplored, but this is a promising avenue for future research,” the study authors reported.

The findings were published online Jan. 15 in the journal Scientific Reports.

Original article on Live Science.