With a Mane and Strange Shoulder Rods, This New Dinosaur Was Quite a ‘Little Show-Off’

The chicken-sized carnivore was found in Brazil and researchers say it may have been quite colorful

Ubirajara jubatus
An artist's rendering of Ubirajara jubatus, a newly described dinosaur species featuring two sets of rods sticking out of its shoulders and a mane of fluffy proto-feathers. Artwork © Bob Nicholls / Paleocreations.com 2020

A new species of dinosaur discovered by paleontologists in Brazil may not sound like much, fossils suggest it was a meat-eater about the size of a chicken, but its paltry stature may have belied an abundance of swagger. X-ray scans of the fossil revealed a halo of fanciful protrusions surrounding its bones that researchers say may have featured in gaudy mating displays rivaling modern peacocks and birds of paradise, reports Will Dunham for Reuters.

Writing in the journal Cretaceous Research, the researchers describe adornments including a mane of potentially colorful proto-feathers running down its neck and back, and, strangest of all, two stiff, ribbon-like structures jutting nearly six inches out of each shoulder, reports Karina Shah for New Scientist.

“These [shoulder] structures are really elaborate; they made this animal look pretty spectacular, just as a bird of paradise looks spectacular [today],” David Martill, a paleontologist at the University of Portsmouth and co-author of the new study, tells John Pickrell of Science News. “When birds have these sorts of feathers, they do all sorts of posh dances and displays, so this dinosaur looks like it was a little show-off.”

Researchers found the new species in the limestone of the Crato Formation in northeastern Brazil. They named it Ubirajara jubatus, which derives from a local Indigenous word in the Tupi language meaning “lord of the spear,” and jubatis which comes from the Latin word for “maned” or “crested,” per Science News. Ubirajara jubatus lived during the Cretaceous, roughly 110 million years ago, and while its remains turned up in today's Brazil, the creature’s native continent in life would have been super-sized Gondwana—a tectonic mash-up of South America, Africa, India, Antarctica and Australia, per New Scientist.

This showy dinosaur’s mane and shoulder decorations were discovered by researchers taking a second look at a decades-old fossil using high-resolution digital X-rays, reports George Dvorsky for Gizmodo. Researchers say both the mane and the shoulder ribbons were made of the protein keratin, which also makes up hair, fingernails and bird feathers.

“The ribbon-like structures are unlike anything we’ve seen before. They’re elongate and flat with a ridge running along their length that likely strengthened the structures,” Robert Smyth, a paleontologist at the University of Portsmouth and the paper’s first author, tells Gizmodo. “Similar-shaped filaments are known in other dinosaurs, but none that are so large in comparison to the size of the animal.”

The mane was composed of slender filaments reaching four inches long in places, according to New Scientist.

“Likely from a distance it looked hairy rather than feathery,” Martill tells Reuters. “Likely it had hair-like protofeathers over much of its body but they are only preserved along its neck, back and arms. The ones on its back are very long and give it a sort of mane that is unique for dinosaurs.” Martill adds that he thinks this may well have been quite a colorful, too.

According to Science News, this specimen is the first direct evidence of a dinosaur with feather-like structures found in the Southern Hemisphere and suggests the use of feathers in display may have ancient evolutionary roots within a group of carnivorous dinosaurs called the compsognathids.

Speaking with Science News, Max Langer, a paleontologist at the University of São Paulo who was not involved in the research, notes that it’s unfortunate the fossil ended up in Germany instead of Brazil and that its subsequent analysis occurred without the involvement of Brazilian researchers.

Science News reports that Martill and another of the paper’s authors acquired the fossil from the paleontological museum in the Brazilian city of Crato with permission from local officials and brought it to Germany in 1995 where it has been ever since.