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Reconstruction of Microraptor and the Evolution of Iridescent Plumage

Science  09 Mar 2012:
Vol. 335, Issue 6073, pp. 1215-1219
DOI: 10.1126/science.1213780

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Abstract

Iridescent feather colors involved in displays of many extant birds are produced by nanoscale arrays of melanin-containing organelles (melanosomes). Data relevant to the evolution of these colors and the properties of melanosomes involved in their generation have been limited. A data set sampling variables of extant avian melanosomes reveals that those forming most iridescent arrays are distinctly narrow. Quantitative comparison of these data with melanosome imprints densely sampled from a previously unknown specimen of the Early Cretaceous feathered Microraptor predicts that its plumage was predominantly iridescent. The capacity for simple iridescent arrays is thus minimally inferred in paravian dinosaurs. This finding and estimation of Microraptor feathering consistent with an ornamental function for the tail suggest a centrality for signaling in early evolution of plumage and feather color.

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