Color Your Dinosaurs

by Yesul Chun

When we imagine about the colors of dinosaurs or other ancient creatures lived at that time, we tend to imagine them as in subdued colors like: greyish green, dark grey, or brown, etc. Sometimes we see very colorful dinosaurs in children’s cartoons, but we think it is unrealistic- like Barney the dinosaur or the Land Before Time.

However, from the various fossil investigations, the fact is found that dinosaur had vibrant colors!

The transformation of mankind’s view of dinosaurs from dull to flamboyant was made possible by a discovery by Yale graduate student Jakob Vinther in the Department of Geology and Geophysics. Dinosaur’s true color can be discovered by analyzing melanosomes from fossils. Melanosome is an organelle containing melanin, the most common light-absorbing pigment found in animals, including birds. According to ScienceDaily, in 2008, Jakob Vinther found that organic traces that were previously thought as carbon imprints from bacteria are fossilized melanosomes. Jakob and other Yale paleontologist and ornithologist analyzed a striped feather found in 100 million-year-old rocks in Brazil, and they found melanosomes in the dark but not the light areas of the feather fossil using an electron microscope. This research proved that fossil feathers preserve evidence of colors.

Striped fossil feather and feather of a modern woodpecker

In 2010, the journal Nature, an international team of paleontologist and experts used this scanning electron micrography method to discover the color of Sinosauropteryx. Sinosauropteryx is the first dinosaur reported to have feathers in 1996. It was found in 130 to 123-million-year-old sediments in northeast China. From the research, this dinosaur had reddish orange feathers running along its back and a striped tail.

Photograph courtesy Institute of Fossil Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, Beijing

Image courtesy Chuang Zhao and Lida Xing

Soon after – about a week – of this discovery, according to the journal Science, scientists have decoded the full-body color patters of a dinosaur. Research of colors in Sinosauropteryx fossils found pigments only on a few isolated parts of dinosaurs, but the new study of the 155-million-year-old Anchiomis huxleyi built the whole color pattern of the dinosaur. It turns out to have a similar look with a woodpecker with black-and-white spangled wings and rusty red crown. The color patterns on Anchiornis’s limbs are “quite similar to the silver-spangled Hamburg chicken, a domestic breed of ornamental chicken,” said ornithologist Richard Prum of Yale University. Richard Prum also stated that the function of crown and limb feathers is communication or signaling rather than flight.

All these discoveries of dinosaurs’ true colors come to people in very interesting story as we easily picture dinosaurs as mono-toned animals. Paleoartist Gary Staab said, “In some ways the discovery of the true color of dinosaurs takes away a bit of the fun from building models for museums. Yet it does allow us to view these animals at a much higher ‘resolution’ than we have previously been capable of.”

Sources:

Yale University. “Fossil Feathers Preserve Evidence Of Color, Say Scientists.” ScienceDaily, 8 Jul. 2008.

National Geographic. “Dinosaur True Colors Revealed by Feather Find.” 27 Jan. 2010.

Yale University. “Dinosaur had vibrant colors, microscopic fossil clues reveal.” ScienceDaily, 4 Feb. 2010.

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