Scientists have found the most intricately dressed impressive dinosaur ever described and say it gives a new light to how birds like peacocks inherited their ability to show off.
The new species, Ubirajara jubatus, was a chicken with a mane of long fur down on its back and stiff ribbons protruding back and forth from its shoulders, features never before seen in the fossil record.
It is supposed that its extravagant features were used to blind friends or frighten an enemy.
An international team of scientists led by Professor David Martill and researcher Robert Smyth, both at the University of Portsmouth, and Professor Dino Frey at the State Museum of Natural History, Karlsruhe, Germany discovered the new species while examining fossils in a Karlsruhe collection.
The study is published in the scientific journal Cretaceous Research.
Professor Martill said: “What is especially unusual about the animal is the presence of two very long, probably rigid ribbons on either side of its shoulders, which were probably used for display, for friendship, inter-male rivalry or to intimidate an enemy.
“We can’t prove that the specimen is male, but considering the difference between male and female birds, it seems likely that the specimen was male, as well as young, which is surprising, as most complex display skills are reserved for mature adult males.
“Because of its extravagance, we can imagine that the dinosaur may have dedicated itself to elaborate dancing to show off its screen structures.”
The ribbons are not scales or skins, nor feathers in the modern sense. They appear to be structures unique to this animal.
Mr Smyth said: “These are such extravagant traits for such a small animal and not at all what we would have predicted if we only kept the skeleton. Why decorate yourself in such a way that you become more obvious to your prey and to potential predators? ?
“The truth is that for many animals, evolutionary success is about more than just surviving, you also have to look good if you want to pass on your genes to the next generation.
“Modern birds are famous for their intricate plumage and screens used to attract friends – the peacock’s tail and paradise male birds are textbook examples of this. Ubirajara shows us that this tendency to show off is not a uniquely bird characteristic, but something that birds inherited from their dinosaur ancestors. “
Ubirajara jubatus lived about 110 million years ago, during the Aptian stage of the Cretaceous, and is closely related to the European Jurassic dinosaur Compsognathus.
A section of the long, thick mane running along the back of the animal is kept almost intact. The arms were also covered with fur-like filaments up to the hands.
The mane is thought to be controlled by muscles that allow it to lift, similarly, a dog raises its hacks or a porcupine raises its spines when threatened.
Ubirajara could lower his mane close to the skin when not in screen mode allowing the creature to move quickly without getting involved in vegetation.
Professor Martill said: “Every creature with movable hair or feathers as a body cover has a great advantage in streamlining the body contour for faster hunts or escapes but also for trapping or releasing heat.”
The mane is not the only extraordinary feature.
The researchers describe as “enigmatic” the creature’s long, flat, stiff shoulder straps of keratin, each with a small sharp crest along the middle. These ribbons were positioned so as not to impede freedom of movement in its arms and legs, so as not to limit the animal’s ability to hunt, prey and send signals.
Mr Smyth argues that Ubirajara’s elaborate plumage may have improved its chances of surviving.
He said: “We know that many dinosaurs had bony crests, spines and luxuries that were probably used to show off, but we don’t see them very often in living birds. In birds, crests are made of feathers.
“This little dinosaur understands a little bit why this might be the case.
“Bone requires a lot of energy for a body to grow and sustain it, it also weighs and can cause serious injury if broken.
“Keratin – the material that consists of hair, feathers and scales – is a much better display alternative for a small animal like this. Keratin is less expensive to produce a body, it is also lightweight, flexible and can be regularly replaced if damaged.
“Ubirajara is the most primitive known dinosaur possessing integumentary screen structures. It represents a revolution in dinosaur communication, the effects of which we can still see today in living birds.”
Professor Frey excavated the sample from the two stone slabs in which it lay and, by X-rays, found previously hidden skeletal elements and soft tissues, allowing the researchers to build a clear picture of its features.
Ubirajara jubatus is the first non-bird dinosaur described from the Brazilian Crato Formation, a shallow inland sea set about 110 million years ago. It is also the first non-bird dinosaur found on the ancient supercontinent of Gondwana with preserved skin.
Another of the team’s researchers, Hector Rivera Sylva, of the Desert Museum, Mexico, said, in addition to the fact that the discovery was a watershed in this field, that it was also important to the Americas.
He said: “The Ubirajara jubatus is not only important because of the integumentary structures present for the first time in a non-bird dinosaur, completely changing the way we view the behavior of some dinosaurs. Rather, the scientific value transcends, forming a watershed, as it is the first evidence for this group in Latin America, as well as one of the few reported for the Gondwana subcontinent, expanding the knowledge of non-bird feathered dinosaurs for the United States, whose index is very scarce. “