An orange and white dinosaur known as Sinosauropteryx has provided the key for scientists to establish the point of dino feathers. This is a reconstruction of a Sinosauropteryx, sporting its orange and white striped tail.
Scientists believe that feathers may have evolved for ornamentation and protection rather than insulation and flight. It also comes in the wake of the first proper identification of dinosaur colouring.
Scientists have been able to identify colour-bearing cell bodies called melanosomes in short, feather-like bristles found in the remains of Sinosauropteryx, a small carnivore which had a racoon-like orange and white tail.
From the striking colouring in these ‘proto-feathers’, scientists infer that they must have evolved for display purposes, rather than to keep the animal warm or to aid flight.
“We now know that feathers came before wings, so feathers did not originate as flight structures,” said Professor Mike Benton from Bristol University, who worked with colleagues from China on the study.
“We therefore suggest that feathers first arose as agents for colour display and only later in their evolutionary history did they become useful for flight and insulation.”
“From the fact that Sinosauropteryx has, we believe, a stripy tail, we would say that’s a display function,” continued Prof Benton. “It’s clearly not for flight because these are just short bristles. It’s between insulation and display; what came first, we’re not quite sure”.