Page last updated at 21:47 GMT, Thursday, 4 February 2010

Dinosaur had flamboyant, multi-coloured plumage

By Doreen Walton
Science reporter, BBC News

Colourful dinosaur
The researchers found evidence that Anchiornis huxleyi was a colourful character

A study of a 150 million year old dinosaur fossil has revealed it had multi-coloured feathers.

The research, published in the journal Science, compared the structures which determine colour in living bird feathers with those in the fossil.

"This would be a very striking animal if it was alive today," said Yale University's Professor Richard Prum, co-author of the report.

It is believed the colours would have helped the dinosaur attract a mate.

Anchiornis huxleyi is a four-winged dinosaur which lived in the late Jurassic Period in China. Researchers chose this particular fossil to work on because the feathers were so well preserved.

Extraordinarily beautiful

They believe its body was grey; it had a reddish-brown Mohawk-like crest, speckles on its face and white feathers with black tips on its wings and legs.

The scientists say the pattern of colour on the wings and leg feathers is very like that of modern Spangled Hamburg chickens.

dinosaur fossil
The dinosaur fossil the scientists chose had very well preserved feathers

It is the first time a whole dinosaur fossil has been analysed in such detail for colour.

"It's like a big chicken but more slender and graceful," said palaeontologist Jacob Vinther from Yale University, US, who also worked on the project.

"It's an extraordinarily beautiful fossil. You can see all the feathers and they're all attached to the bone. We took samples from all over it. The toes, the longer feathers on its legs, from its wings, the body and the crescent on its head."

The dinosaur's four wings may have allowed it to glide from tree to tree. "That's how I imagine it." said Mr Vinther.

"If you were a dinosaur and you wanted to evolve flight, then jumping from tree to tree is very good way of developing it gradually."

Optimal display

Researchers in China and the US took 26 feathers of different colours from modern birds and looked at the shapes and structures of the pigments inside them.

These were compared to the structures and shapes of the pigments from the fossil. The scientists were able to determine the pigment type by how clearly defined the feather was on the fossil.

"The pigment is what makes the imprint of the feather," explained Mr Vinther. "If you have a white feather and a black feather, only the black feather would become fossilised."

Although the feathers may have been useful for gliding they point to other reasons that they evolved in the way they did early on. "The feathers are not optimal for flying, they are optimal for display.

It was definitely using feathers for display to attract mates," said Mr Vinther.

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