A bizarre feathered dinosaur has been discovered in the Inner Mongolia region in northern China. The pigeon-sized creature lived 152-168 million years ago — a little before Archaeopteryx — and is bird-like in many ways, including the presence of four very long ribbon-like tail feathers and a short tail. Its discoverers say it was probably flightless.
Its name is Epidexipteryx hui. The generic name, Greek for "display wing" or "display feather," is pronounced ep-id-ecks-IP-ter-icks.
Fucheng Zhang and colleagues from the Chinese Academy of Sciences describe in this week's issue of the journal Nature that the animal shows no sign of flight feathers as seen in other bird-like dinosaurs such as Microraptor. Its long tail feathers, however, add more complexity to our understanding of how birds evolved from dinosaurs.
“Elongate tail feathers (ETFs) are a normal component of the ornamental plumage in extant birds,” the scientists write. “In contrast to other feather types, ornamental plumage is used to send visual signals that are essential to a wide range of avian behavior patterns, particularly relating to courtship. For example, experiments have shown that, in some species, males with long tail plumage attract more mates than their short-tailed counterparts. It is highly probable that the ETFs of Epidexipteryx similarly had display as their primary function, rather than serving other purposes such as flight or insulation.”
Epidexipteryx is the oldest carnivorous dinosaur to possess display feathers, suggesting to Zhang “that display feathers appeared before airfoil feathers and flight ability” in the ancestors of modern birds. — M.M.
This depiction of Epidexipteryx envisions the animal in multiple colors. The true colors of dinosaurs are a mystery. (Art by Qiu Ji and Xing Lida)