Cretaceous Bird Feathers

When I was a lad, it was considered rare and unlikely for soft tissue such as feathers to be preserved in fossils of dinosaurs. A handful of specimens were known, and they were considered miraculous.

But nowadays we’ve found many, many examples of skin and feathers in early birds and non-avian dinosaurs, many of them from sites in China.

This month Jennifer A. Peteya and colleagues report on a new fossil specimen of a bird that lived in the early cretaceous, alongside many of our favorite dinosaurs [1]. Finding early birds with feathers is fairly common now (this came from one of the fossil rich strata Liaoning province), this find was interesting because the feathers indicate elaborate plumage similar to the mating displays of contemporary birds.

The individual animal appears to be an adolescent, not fully grown but coming into elaborate plumage. The analysis compared the melanin with contemporary birds, and suggests that “the colour of these preserved feathers was originally iridescent” ([1], p. 9) The precise color could not be determined (but it’s still amazing how much could be inferred from 100 million year old sample).

The researchers infer that this plumage might be intraspecific signaling and possibly sexual display, as in many contemporary birds. “The combination of immature skeletal characteristics and ornaments in CUGB P1202 is indicative of the importance of sexual selection in basal enantiornithine” (p. 14). Specifically, this suggests that this species might reach sexual maturity before skeletal maturity, unlike most modern birds (but known in other species).

Overall, the picture of cretaceous birds and bird like dinosaurs is quite confusing, with many species of birds and similar animals known and many gaps. Lineages aside, though, the behavioral picture is becoming a little clearer. 100 million years ago we can see birds acting like our feathered friends today. The probably ate the same things, looked similar, mated and nested in familiar ways, and vocalized. In other words, the age of dinosaurs was filled with birds.

Cool!


  1. Jennifer A. Peteya, Julia A. Clarke, Quanguo Li, Ke-Qin Gao, and Matthew D. Shawkey, The plumage and colouration of an enantiornithine bird from the early cretaceous of china. Palaeontology:n/a-n/a, 2016. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/pala.12270

(By the way, “Cretaceous bird feathers” would be a great name for  a band, don’t you think?.)

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