'Elegant' dinosaurs may have shaken their tail feathers

At least one species of dinosaur had a feathered tail "built for flaunting," says Univerity of Alberta scientist Scott Persons, who argues that it is time to update the image of dinosaurs as big, dull, lurching creatures.

Oviraptors may have put their plumage on display to attract mates

A University of Alberta paleontologist has concluded from recent fossil finds that some species of dinosaurs probably had large fans of feathers at the end of their tails like peacocks. Scott Persons says the conclusions in his newly published paper have important implications for how we think the ancient beasts behaved. (Sydney Mohr/Canadian Press)

At least one species of dinosaur had a feathered tail "built for flaunting," says University of Alberta scientist Scott Persons, who argues that it is time to update the portrayal of dinosaurs as big, dull, lurching creatures.

The oviraptor, a flightless vegetarian and a distant relative of the T. Rex, had a large fan of feathers at the end of its sturdy and flexible tail. The non-avian dinosaur also had other birdlike features such as beaks and crests — all features Persons suggests would have spiced up the Mesozoic landscape.

"Think of it as a trip to Las Vegas, because there would be tail-feather fans on showgirls for you," said Persons, who studied fossils found in Mongolia and said the plumage was likely put on display to attract mates.

The Edmonton-based PhD student, who is from North Carolina, led the research on the oviraptor published Friday in the journal Acta Palaeontologica Polonica.

Persons studied the tail anatomy of non-avian theropod dinosaurs and found that the oviraptor's tail contained pygostyles, or solid bones that are also found in today's birds. These pygostyles likely acted as the anchor point for its tail feathers.

This research combined with previous discoveries of fossilized oviraptor feathers with colour banding led Persons to his conclusion.

"You stick a feather fan on the end of a highly dextrous and muscular tail and you've got what I think is a tail built for flaunting, that could shake a tail feather side to side, raise it up, strike a pose," Persons said.

That shaking could have been "to an extent that's greater than a modern-day peacock or a turkey," he said.

An elegant dinosaur

Oviraptors lived between 66 and 145 million years ago and ranged from the size of a modern turkey to eight metres in length. 

Persons does not claim that all oviraptors had tail feathers, and his work builds on the knowledge that other species of dinosaur had feathers — some of which evolved into birds.

"It shows you that you had sophisticated feathers in other dinosaur lineages as well, not just the ones related to birds," he said, adding that the image of dinosaurs as "big, slow-moving, dull" creatures who lurch around needs updating.

Oviraptors, he said, invested more of their time and energy into putting on a display.

"You can think of these elegant, long-legged, fast, apparently warm-blooded dinosaurs that are doing more with their time than sunbathing and eating."

With files from The Canadian Press