Some feathered dinosaurs may have used their tail feathers in a similar way to today’s turkeys and peacocks, in displays to attract a mate.
Scientists at the University of Alberta believe they have found the first evidence that the ‘Similicaudiptery’, a bird-like dinosaur or oviraptor would have had feathers located on its tail. While no feathers have ever been preserved directly in this type of fossil, their tails have the same type of structure found in related feathered dinosaurs.
Rather than using these feathers to fly, paleontologists believe that the feathers would have been used to create a feather display, very similar to today’s peacocks, during mating rituals with the opposite sex.
"The structure is called a pygostyle," says paleontologist Scott Persons, lead author of the study published in the journal Acta Palaeontologica Polonica.
"Among modern animals only birds have them."
The pygostyle is made up of short vertebrae, indicating that it would have been highly flexible. Persons reconstructed the muscles in the tail to reveal that the Similicaudiptery would have been able to really shake its tail feathers, indicating that they were used in mating rituals.
"A terminal tail-feather fan appears to have been a common feature among oviraptorosaurs, and the muscular and flexible tails would have permitted these fans to be flaunted in dynamic displays," write the authors.
Oviraptors were two-legged plant-eating dinosaurs that roamed parts of China, Mongolia, and Alberta during the Cretaceous period, between 145 and 66 million years ago.
"By this time a variety of dinosaurs used feathers for flight and insulation from the cold," says Persons.
"This shows that by the Late Cretaceous dinosaurs were doing everything with feathers that modern birds do now."