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Dinos of a Feather…..Color Together

Remember in the good old days when dinosaurs could be any color as long as that color was a shade of gray or maybe green?

Now-a-days you see lots of dinosaurs represented with many different colors and patterns.

Some scientists still think that many were drab shades of green or gray like modern big mammals such as elephants and rhinos.

Many scientists though see no reason why dinosaurs weren’t as colorful as modern day snakes, lizards and birds or any animal for that matter.

This seems obvious considering there were so many different species of dinos and color has great utility whether it threatens enemies or is used as camouflage, to attract mates, species recognition etc.

Determining color from fossils is the problem of course, making all color choices essentially an educated guess. Do you remember when the first dinosaur skin impression fossils were found? They found these pebbly or scaly projections on the skin called tubercles. Texture can be fossilized but the pigments that produce skin color doesn’t. That doesn’t mean however that we’ll never know if dinosaurs were colorful.

In fact, some scientists are pretty sure that a species called Sinosauropteryx from 125 million years ago was ginger colored. This is because skin pigment may not fossilize but feather structures do.

Scientists from China and the UK have announced on the Nature website that Sinosauropteryx had a ginger feather mohawk extending from its head to its back all the way to a striped tail.

They discovered this using a technique developed by fossil feather expert Jakob Vinther, a graduate student at Yale, and his colleagues. This new method examines exceedingly well preserved fossil feathers using an electron microscope. Within these they found structures called melanosomes which in living animals contain melanin; the pigment that colors hair fur and many types of feathers.

Luckily, color can be inferred by the shape and arrangement of the melanosomes alone. Black or grey would be sausage-shaped, ginger or russet shades would be ball-shaped.

Professor Benton from the University of Bristol, UK said

“This is the first time anyone has ever had evidence of original colour of feathers in dinosaurs,”

The significance of all this is more than what color to use for these guys in the textbooks.

First it supports the theory that birds evolved from theropod dinosaurs.

Second: this finding proves that these structures had to be primitive feathers and not something like shredded tissue.

Finally this reveals key information about the evolution of feathers. They were not initially used as flight structures but maybe as display for mates or to threaten enemies.

There were unfortunately some criticisms of the research (that’s ok though, that’s how science works).

Mr, Vinther mentioned above said that the sample size was too small to say this specific dino was this color.

Dr. Theagarten Lingham-Soliar of the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa says that these researchers should have looked at feather-less dinosaurs for melanosomes in their skin.

He said in an email:

“Regrettably, I have to say the study would not pass muster in college science,”

That’s quite a dis, but it does make sense to enlarge the sample size and look for melanosomes in the skin as well.


I just found out that other scientists have been trying to put some technicolor on dinosaurs too.

Very recently, Richard Prum, evolutionary biologist at Yale, co-authored a study looking at the melanosomes of a 150 million year old chicken-sized dino called Anchiornis huxleyi.

According to the New York Times, paleontologist Luis M. Chiappe “praised the rigor and detail of the new study”

Dr. Chiappe said.

“For a dinosaur scientist, this is like the birth of color TV,”

They even created a cool full-body render of it.

I wonder if this one would pass muster in college science.

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