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New Finding: Dinosaur’s Feathers Were Black with Iridescent Sheen

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A pigeon-sized, four-winged dinosaur known as Microraptor had black iridescent feathers when it roamed the Earth 130 million years ago, according to new 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. The findings, which suggest the importance of display in the early evolution of feathers, are published in the March 9 edition of the journal Science.

“This study gives us an unprecedented glimpse at what this animal looked like when it was alive,” said Mark Norell, one of the paper’s authors and chair of the Museum’s Division of Paleontology.


At 12:30 pm on Friday, March 9, Norell and senior principal artist Mick Ellison will speak with Robert Gonzalez, a science reporter at io9, during a live video chat. To join the conversation, tag your questions with #dinofeathers on Twitter or email them to comments@amnh.org.

[UPDATE: View a video of the March 9, 2012, live stream below.]


Although its anatomy is very similar to birds, Mircroraptor is considered a non-avian dinosaur and is placed in group of dinosaurs called dromaeosaurs that includes Velociraptor.

Modern birds use their feathers for many different things, ranging from flight to thermoregulation to mate-attracting displays. Feather color is produced partially by arrays of pigment-bearing organelles called melanosomes, the structure of which is constant for a given color. By comparing the imprint patterns of fossilized melanosomes to those in living birds, scientists can infer the color of dinosaurs that lived many millions of years ago. Statistical analysis of the data predicts that Microraptor was completely black with a glossy, weakly iridescent blue sheen like a crow.

The research also shows that Microraptor’s tail fan, which was once thought to be a broad, teardrop-shaped surface meant to help with flight, is actually much narrower with two elongate feathers.

Both of these findings suggest that, like many modern birds, Microraptor most likely used its ornate feathers for courtship and other social interactions, not for aerodynamics.

Read more details about the study from the Museum’s press release.

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