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Irish research adds colour to bird ancestor 'Ginger-saurus'

THEY could have been called the Ginger-saurus.

Major new research from an Irish university has shown a type of dinosaur, from 125 million years ago, had patches of ginger feathers in a mohican style running down their backs.

Academics from around the world have collaborated with University College Dublin (UCD) in the study which has been heralded as a significant advance in understanding ancient life.

The study shows the 40cm high flesh-eating Sinosauropteryx, an early ancestor of birds, had patches of white, black and orange-brown colouring.

The development is seen as a major insight into how feathers on birds originated and what their initial function was.

The new research, which has been put together by a team of eight from UCD, the University of Bristol, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Open University, suggests that feathers were originally for displaying colour and only later were used for flight.

This is the first time that the colour of a dinosaur's feathers has been pinpointed.

UCD's Dr Patrick Orr said the team was delighted at the breakthrough on the study of a fossilised Sinosauropteryx which was found in north-east China about 15 years ago.

The three-year study on the evolution of birds and dinosaurs found two types of melanosomes, which can identify the tones in feathers, buried in the structure of feathers of dinosaurs and early birds. These were found in the Sinosauropteryx.

It is thought the metre long creature had orange and white rings of feathers on its tail.

"It is a nice breakthrough," Dr Orr said. "We know they [the feathers] weren't used for flight so what other purpose were they used for? Sexual display? Camouflage?"

He added it was "early days" in trying to identify what the feathers were actually used for and the debate is rife within the academic community.

However, his colleague on the project, Professor Mike Benson from the University of Bristol, said it was clear feathers came before wings.

"We therefore suggest that feathers first aroseas agents for colour display and only later in their evolutionary history did they become useful for flight and insulation," he said.

The discovery confirms previous evidence which suggests birds evolved from a long-line of flesh eating dinosaurs like the Sinosauropteryx.

Irish Independent