Over the last 10 years, theropod dinosaurs from the Middle-Late Jurassic Yanliao Biota have offered rare glimpses of the early paravian evolution and particularly the origin of birds. The first discovered Yanliao non-scansoriopterygid theropod was Anchiornis huxleyi, and since then several other extremely similar species have also been reported. Caihong juji, a newly discovered Yanliao specimen, exhibits an array of osteological features, plumage characteristics, and putative melanosome morphologies not previously seen in other Paraves. The name Caihong is from the Mandarin ‘Caihong’ (rainbow). The specific name, juji is from the Mandarin ‘ju’ (big) and ‘ji’ (crest), referring to the animal’s prominent lacrimal crests.
The holotype (PMoL-B00175) is a small, articulated skeleton with fossilized soft tissues, preserved in slab and counter slab, collected by a local farmer from Qinglong County, Hebei Province, China, and acquired by the Paleontological Museum of Liaoning in February, 2014. The specimen (estimated to be ~400 mm in total skeletal body length with a body mass of ~475 g) exhibits the following autapomorphies within Paraves: accessory fenestra posteroventral to promaxillary fenestra, lacrimal with prominent dorsolaterally oriented crests, robust dentary with anterior tip dorsoventrally deeper than its midsection and short ilium.
Caihong juji differs from Anchiornis huxleyi in having a shallow skull with a long snout, forelimb proportionally short, and forearm proportionally long. Caihong also resembles basal troodontids and to a lesser degree basal dromaeosaurids in dental features (anterior teeth are slender and closely packed, but middle and posterior teeth are more stout and sparsely spaced; and serrations are absent in the premaxilla and anterior maxilla).
Feathers are well preserved over the body, but in some cases, they are too densely preserved to display both gross and fine morphological features. The contour feathers are proportionally longer than those of other known non-avialan theropods. The tail feathers resemble those of Archaeopteryx, and the troodontid Jinfengopteryx in having large rectrices attaching to either side of the caudal series forming a frond-shaped tail, a feature that has been suggested to represent a synapomorphy for the Avialae.
But, the most remarkable feature observed in Caihong, is the presence of some nanostructures preserved in the head, chest, and parts of its tail, that have been identified as melanosomes. They are long, flat, and organized into sheets, with a pattern similar of those of the iridescent throat feathers of hummingbirds.
Recovered as a basal deinonychosaur, Caihong shows the earliest asymmetrical feathers and proportionally long forearms in the theropod fossil record wich indicates locomotor differences among closely related Jurassic paravians and has implications for understanding the evolution of flight-related features.
Hu, et al. A bony-crested Jurassic dinosaur with evidence of iridescent plumage highlights complexity in early paravian evolution. Nature (2018) doi:10.1038/s41467-017-02515-y
Godefroit, P. et al. A Jurassic avialan dinosaur from China resolves the early phylogenetic history of birds. Nature 498, 359–362 (2013).