Dinosaurs Shook Their Tail Feathers

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Credit: Sydney Mohr

Some dinosaurs danced and literally shook their tail

feathers to attract potential mates, researchers say.

It's long been theorized that at least some feathered

dinosaurs used their plumage for courtship. A new study, published in the journal

Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, strengthens that belief.

The dancing, prancing dinosaurs were oviraptors — two legged,

plant-eating dinos, related to T. rex, that roamed parts of China, Mongolia and Alberta during the

Cretaceous period, which was the final age of the dinosaur.

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"Oviraptors clearly had the anatomy needed to sinuously

swish and to gracefully flaunt their tails," lead author Scott Persons told

Discovery News, adding that many of these dinosaurs also had arm fans and head

crests, which could have been part of such eye-catching moments.

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"I suspect that a displaying oviraptor would be quite a

sight, but the precise choreography of a dinosaur mating dance is the sort of

thing that you can't learn from bones and is, sadly, the sort of thing that

paleontologists will probably never know."

Persons, a researcher at the University of Alberta, and his

team, however, were able to tell a lot about the dinosaurs’ appearance and

behavior based on fossil evidence.

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The scientists noticed that individual vertebrae at the base

of an early oviraptor Similicaudiptery

and related species were short and numerous, indicating great flexibility.

Based on dissections of modern reptile and bird tales, a reconstruction of the

dinosaur’s tail muscles revealed oviraptors had what it took to really shake

their tail feathers.

Large muscles would have

extended far down the tail, having a sufficient number of broad connection

points to propel the dinosaur's tail feathers vigorously from side to side and

up and down.

Modern-day peacocks and turkeys use their tail plumage in a

similar way. It's possible that some oviraptor feathers were as beautiful and

striking as those of peacocks.

"Exceptional fossils of oviraptors from China, which were

preserved in fine volcanic ash, show definitively that at least some of the

tail feathers had bands of contrasting color," Persons explained. "They may

have had iridescent feathers, like a peacock, but that is a harder question,

and one without definitive evidence."

As for today's birds that use tail plumage to attract mates,

the researchers suspect males did most of the feather flaunting and displaying.

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While the timeline for feather evolution is still somewhat

of a mystery, the new findings provide intriguing clues.

Oviraptors with tail feather fans date back to over 120

million years, but Persons said that "they already have well developed

feathers, so I doubt that they were the first."

He thinks dinosaur feathers initially evolved for

insulation, with flight and courtship uses following later. It's even possible

that insulating feathers first evolved in the reptilian ancestors of dinosaurs.

"The oldest fossil feathers are nearly 160 million years

old, but feathers must have evolved many millions of years before that," he

said.

Thomas Holtz, Jr., a vertebrate paleontologist from the

University of Maryland, said oviraptors "are not flightworthy animals, but are

demonstrably feathered. And indeed, the big arm fans and tail fans show that these

feathers are more than just insulation, so display is a very likely use."

The combination of features of these dinosaurs, he continued, reveal they could "flex, fold, and otherwise show off their tail fans in a variety of poses and

movements: hallmarks of a structure used in some form of visual display."