Gliding through trees in what is now China some 130 million years ago, the microraptor sported shimmering black feathers, a new study reveals.
Even dinosaurs can look sharp in basic black and downright iridescent.
An unusual crowlike dinosaur — which really does not look like a dinosaur at all — had glossy black feathers that were probably used to call attention to itself and find a mate, scientists say in Thursday's journal Science.
It is the oldest example of the shimmering look on animals, said study co-author Julia Clarke at the University of Texas. And in other animals, especially birds, that shine is often how males attract females to mate.
"It's like shimmery clothes and garments you would wear out to big social gatherings," said Matthew Shawkey, another co-author from the University of Akron. He said they figure it was glossy from the shape of sacs that contain pigment in a fossil found in rural China.
It is definitely not drab T-rex duds. Nothing about these dinosaurs, called microraptors because they did not get much more than 30 inches (76 centimeters) long, evokes the fearsome look that has made dinosaurs the stuff of nightmares and scary movies.
Microraptors look like black birds, except with fearsome teeth, claws and a strange set of secondary wings attached to their legs — something birds do not have. They also have long ornamental tail feathers extending far from their bodies. In fact, some paleontologists think they are birds.
"To me a bird is an animal with an avian hand and wrist with primary flight feathers," said Larry Martin, a professor at the University of Kansas who was not involved in the research. "By that definition microraptor is definitely a bird."
Not so, say the three study authors. First, microraptor could not fly based on its skeleton and muscle formation, Norell said. At best it would glide or parachute from trees.
Looking at the way the animal's skeleton is laid out, it is far more related to velociraptor than modern birds, Norell said.
"Crows don't have teeth. Crows don't have claws on its hands," Norell said. "The hands are identical to things we think of as mean vicious animals, like velociraptor."