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 glides down from its perch, landing on another branch. This animal is a bug-eating dinosaur called Anchiornis huxleyi, and it's the oldest soaring dinosaur that paleontologists have found so far.
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 animal, 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.
About 10 million years after Anchiornis huxleyi came Archaeopteryx. Scientists are still discovering how these birdlike dinosaurs evolved. But they know for sure that all of today's birds are descended from dinos!
Using Anchiornis huxleyi's fossils, scientists figured out something else about the animal: 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, similar to a woodpecker’s markings. This was the first time scientists had figured out the exact color pattern of a dinosaur. This is one prehistoric animal with a colorful history!