"I suspect that a displaying oviraptor would be quite a sight, but the precise choreography of a dinosaur mating dance is the sort of thing that you can't learn from bones and is, sadly, the sort of thing that paleontologists will probably never know."
Persons, a researcher at the University of Alberta, and his team, however, were able to tell a lot about the dinosaurs' appearance and behavior based on fossil evidence.
The scientists noticed that individual vertebrae at the base of an early oviraptor Similicaudiptery and related species were short and numerous, indicating great flexibility.
Based on dissections of modern reptile and bird tales, a reconstruction of the dinosaur's tail muscles revealed oviraptors had what it took to really shake their tail feathers.
Large muscles would have extended far down the tail, having a sufficient number of broad connection points to propel the dinosaur's tail feathers vigorously from side to side and up and down.
Modern-day peacocks and turkeys use their tail plumage in a similar way. It's possible that some oviraptor feathers were as beautiful and striking as those of peacocks.
"Exceptional fossils of oviraptors from China, which were preserved in fine volcanic ash, show definitively that at least some of the tail feathers had bands of contrasting color," Persons explained. "They may have had iridescent feathers, like a peacock, but that is a harder question, and one without definitive evidence."
As for today's birds that use tail plumage to attract mates, the researchers suspect males did most of the feather flaunting and displaying.
While the timeline for feather evolution is still somewhat of a mystery, the new findings provide intriguing clues.
Oviraptors with tail feather fans date back to over 120 million years, but Persons said that "they already have well developed feathers, so I doubt that they were the first."
He thinks dinosaur feathers initially evolved for insulation, with flight and courtship uses following later. It's even possible that insulating feathers first evolved in the reptilian ancestors of dinosaurs.
"The oldest fossil feathers are nearly 160 million years old, but feathers must have evolved many millions of years before that," he said.
Thomas Holtz, Jr., a vertebrate paleontologist from the University of Maryland, said oviraptors "are not flightworthy animals, but are demonstrably feathered. And indeed, the big arm fans and tail fans show that these feathers are more than just insulation, so display is a very likely use."
The combination of features of these dinosaurs, he continued, reveal they could "flex, fold, and otherwise show off their tail fans in a variety of poses and movements: hallmarks of a structure used in some form of visual display."