Jason Brougham/University of Texas; Mick Ellison (inset)

ScienceShot: Flashy Feathers

The pigeon-sized dinosaur Microraptor, which lived about 120 million years ago, probably sported glossy black plumage like today's crows, a new analysis suggests. Detailed analyses of a fossil (inset) unearthed in northeastern China reveal that the creature's feathers would have been densely packed with pigment-bearing structures called melanosomes. The long, narrow shape of those melanosomes, as well as their arrangement in sheetlike arrays, indicates that the feathers would have been black and weakly iridescent, the researchers report in the 9 March issue of Science. Although other pigments could have been present in Microraptor's feathers, they would have been largely masked by black pigments, rendering the creature crowlike in appearance (main image) except for that long, bony tail and lengthy feathers on its legs. Previous studies of other Microraptor fossils, citing the presence of a large, bony ring within the creature's eye, suggested that the species was nocturnal. But the new study hints that the creature was active in the daytime, because no extant birds with glossy black plumage are active at night. Perhaps Microraptor was active during dawn and dusk, the researchers say—a lifestyle that would require large eyes yet also provide opportunity for daytime activity for which iridescent plumage could be used to identify fellow members of its species and signal to potential mates.

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