“In particular, it helps to resolve a long-standing debate about the original function of feathers – whether they were used for flight, insulation, or display.
“We now know that feathers came before wings, so feathers did not originate as flight structures.
“We therefore suggest that feathers first arose as agents for colour display and only later in their evolutionary history did they become useful for flight and insulation.”
The team of palaeontologists involved with the research, published in the journal Nature, report two kinds of “melanosomes”, parts of proteins that provide the colour found in the feathers of numerous birds and dinosaurs from the Jehol beds of north east China.
They are buried within the structure of feathers and hair in modern birds and mammals, giving black, grey, and rufous tones such as orange and brown.