On the 15th of January Palaeontologists in China published an article in the Journal of Nature Communications about the discovery of a new Jurassic Dinosaur called Caihong juji. This new 161 million year old Theropod was covered in iridescent feathers and plumage on its head, wings and tail similar to that of today’s hummingbirds. This article will look at this new fossil discovery, examining why its feathers are special and why Caihong is such an unusual Dinosaur.

In my previous article I talked about three big fossil discoveries which were all announced over the course of the same week which was fantastic! Two of these I briefly covered with the focus of the article being on the fossil discovery of the Diluvicursor pickeringi in Australia. One of the other dinosaurs I briefly mentioned was that of a new fascinating Dinosaur fossil discovery in China of Caihong juji a Jurassic Theropod. Its name means “rainbow with the big crest” in Mandarin and it was found in China’s Hebei Province in 2014 by a local farmer (Geggel, 2018).

Caihong juji National Geographic
Artist impression of Caihong juji. Image credit: Velizar Simeonovsk, 2018 via National Geographic

China always seems to offer some of the most fascinating and awe-inspiring fossil discoveries and again this fossil announcement did not disappoint. The fact that this fossilized dinosaur specimen displayed iridescent feathers was something that I was not only excited to research online but was a discovery I was very much looking forward to sharing with you all here on Jurassic Finds. The news about this stunning fossil find broke on the 15th of January when Palaeontologists in China published an article in the Journal of Nature Communications. Various science and news outlets quickly picked up the story, these included the National Geographic, Science Alert, Science News, Phys.org and the Los Angeles Times.

What was Caihong juji? Where was it found?

Caihong juji was a small Theropod Dinosaur around the size of a duck. The animal had a bony crest on its head and was covered with iridescent feathers. Based on the fossil analysis palaeontologists discovered that all the feathers on its head, wings and tail were all brightly coloured and changed based on differences in lighting similar to that of modern day birds such as hummingbirds (Science News, 2018). The specimen now housed at the paleontological Museum of Liaoning has been under research at China’s Shenyang Normal University since when it was found, back in 2014.

As well as its feathers the specimen also showcases a lot of differences compared to other similar theropods. For instance Caihong juji displays a much shallower longer Velociraptor like skull as well as longer arm and leg feathers than Anchiornis a feathered Theropod found in China from the Late Jurassic. Caihong juji also displays a bigger asymmetrical tail surface area larger than that of Archaeopteryx another feathered Theropod found in Germany from the Late Jurassic (Hu D. et al, 2018).

Caihong skull Field Museum
Caihong juji skull. Image credit: The Field Museum, 2018 via ZME Science

Why are the feathers special?

Over the years palaeontologists have constantly been finding more fossilized dinosaur skeletons displaying feathers and plumage with a variety of different reasons for their usage whether it be for gliding, insulation, territory or sexual displays. China has provided quite a few of these feathered dinosaur discoveries before with the fossil finds of Microraptor, Sinosauropteryx and Yutyrannus to name just a few.

Palaeontologists and researchers at China’s Shenyang Normal University spent a good amount of time testing the fossilized Caihong feathers for melanosomes as the fossil preserved remnants of pigmentation in its feathers. Over 60 sites across the fossil were examined with the pigmentations compared with that found in modern day bird feathers. What they discovered was that Caihongs feathers were long and organized into layers or sheets which linked up to the iridescent colours seen in the plumage of hummingbirds today (Greshko M. 2018).

Caihong juji feather impression
Caihong juji fossil impression with the skeleton in brown and the feathers in black. Image credit: Hu et. al, 2018 via Science Alert

The analysis of pigmentation of melanosomes to understand dinosaur feather colours has occurred before. In 2012 Chinese and American scientists announced the research of pigmentation and colour found in the dinosaur Microraptor, a small four winged dinosaur from the early Cretaceous some 130 million years ago. Under analysis the fossilized dinosaur displayed glossy blue/black like feathers with an iridescence similar to that of the blue/black feathers found in that of magpies or crows today (American Museum of Natural History, 2018).

Why is Caihong juji an unusual dinosaur?

Whilst Caihongs arm feathers suggest it might have hopped from tree to tree living an arboreal type lifestyle it could not fly and not much is still known about the animals other display features. The use of its brightly covered plumage is debatable as well as whether Males or Females displayed sexually dimorphic feathers (different coloured feathers depending on the animal’s sex) or the purpose of its wide feathered tail. Hopefully more research and future fossil discoveries might be able to share more about this dinosaur’s life and how it used its feathers.

Caihong juji artist impression
Artist impression of Caihong Juji as it prepares to grab its prey. Image credit: Zhao Chuang, 2018 via Species New to Science Blog

I hope you have enjoyed this article! The research undertaken on the Caihong fossil is truly compelling. China seems to be an amazing region for new and unprecedented fossil finds, hopefully these incredible fossil discoveries continue!

Geggel L. (2018) Little ‘Rainbow’ Dinosaur Discovered by Farmer in China, [online] Live Science, Available from: https://www.livescience.com/61429-little-rainbow-dinosaur-discovered-by-farmer-in-china.html [Accessed 24th January 2018]

(2018) Caihong juji: Jurassic Bird-Like Dinosaur Had Iridescent Feathers, [online] Science News, Available from: www.sci-news.com/paleontology/caihong-juji-jurassic-bird-like-dinosaur-iridescent-feathers-05637.html [Accessed 23rd January 2018]

Hu D. Clarke J. and Eliason C. et al (2018) A bony-crested Jurassic dinosaur with evidence of iridescent plumage highlights complexity in early paravian evolution, Nature Communications, [online] 9. Available at https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-017-02515-y [Accessed 23rd January 2018]

Greshko M. (2018) New ‘Rainbow’ Dinosaur may have sparkled like a Hummingbird, [online] National Geographic, Available from: https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/01/new-dinosaur-rainbow-feathers-china-caihong-paleontology-science/ [Accessed 23rd January 2018]

American Museum of Natural History (2018) Microraptor’s Plumage Could Offer Insight into Early Evolution of Feathers, [online] American Museum of Natural History, Available from: https://www.amnh.org/about-the-museum/press-center/microraptor-feathers-were-iridescent [Accessed 23rd January 2018]

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