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IN THE WINGS
A creature the size of a chicken sits on a tree branch in an ancient forest. It’s covered with feathers and has winglike limbs. Suddenly it spreads its limbs and takes off from its perch, gliding to another branch. This animal’s looks and moves might be similar to a bird’s, but don’t be fooled into thinking it’s a fowl. The creature is actually a feathered dinosaur called Anchiornis huxleyi.
Scientists first described Anchiornis huxleyi in 2009 after finding a 150- to 160-million-year-old fossil of the dinosaur in northeastern China. The ancient reptile, which lived during the Jurassic period, had long, feathered legs and curved claws on its feet that likely helped it climb trees.
It also had rows of feathers lining each arm. Despite its plumage, Anchiornis huxleyi couldn’t fly like many modern birds do. Its feathers were too short, which prevented the animal from soaring long distances. But researchers think that the dinosaur could glide on air from one tree branch to another, its limbs and feathers acting like a built-in parachute. Using the remains, scientists figured out something else about the reptile: It was a redhead.
Researchers discovered the color of Anchiornis huxleyi’s feathers by studying chemicals called melanosomes preserved in the dinosaur’s remains. Melanosomes store pigment, which gives living things their color. The scientists’ research revealed that Anchiornis huxleyi had black and white feathers on its limbs and a showy red crest on its head. This is one prehistoric animal with a colorful history!
Text by Karen de Seve