One of the biggest questions in paleontology – what colour were the dinosaurs – looks like it might now have an answer. Or rather, we know how we can find out. In an article that has just appeared on the Nature website (abstract free, article requires subscription), a group of scientists from China, Ireland and the UK have examined the microstructure of feathered dinosaurs and birds. As they say in the abstract:

Here we report that melanosomes (colour-bearing organelles) are not only preserved in the pennaceous feathers of early birds, but also in an identical manner in integumentary filaments of non-avian dinosaurs (…) they are often preserved in life position within the structure of partially degraded feathers and filaments.

Then there’s the killer conclusion:

Furthermore, the data here provide empirical evidence for reconstructing the colours and colour patterning of these extinct birds and theropod dinosaurs: for example, the dark-coloured stripes on the tail of the theropod dinosaur  Sinosauropteryx can reasonably be inferred to have exhibited chestnut to reddish-brown tones.

In case you don’t know what Sinosauropteryx looked like, here it is – complete with coloured stripes!


The details of the paper are complicated (as the details often are), but here’s an example of that Sinosauropteryx tail, complete with electron microcopy of the melanosomes:

a, Optical photograph of the proximal part of the tail. Arrow indicates position of sample removed previously. b, Optical photograph of sample of integumentary filaments; position of SEM sample (inset) indicated by arrow. c, Mouldic phaeomelanosomes within a filament. Scale bars: a, 50 mm; b, main panel, 20 mm, and inset, 1 mm; c, 2 μm.

Of course, these fossils are amazingly well preserved, and its probably unlikely that your average dinosaur fossil will reveal its coloured secrets. But this is an astonishing discovery, which opens a whole new realm for our understanding of dinosaur biology.



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6 responses to “DINOSAURS IN COLOUR!

  1. Pingback: Kolory dinozaurów « Remote sensing i ekologia

  2. Pingback: Feathered dinosaurs—in color! « Why Evolution Is True

  3. Bex

    Are you sure this is a very relevant issue? I mean, yes, it may be interesting … the possibility to provide some (feeble) inferences on behaviour, maybe even metabolism. But maybe this is not so amazing. Maybe it is just … cool: arresting images, nice colours, and the old stuff about charming dinosaurs. “Nature” seems to love appealing news, they are more attractive that … “tedious science”! Maybe dinosaurs had blue tails, maybe Neanderthals had red hair. Science or gossip? Once more, this is interesting, but … so much interesting?

    • Finch

      Although interesting, I see nothing surprising in this article. It is just one of a number of “cosmetic” articles that journals like Nature love to publish. I mean there is not much science in this article, but many funny and cool things for newspapers and media, in general. Moreover, the title of this article, as well as many statements done throughout the text, are very misleading. In fact, the results of this study just show that some coelurosaurs had pigments in their (proto)feathers, while the authors use the term “dinosaurs”, which includes many many more species than coelurosaurs does. Of course, it is more cool to say that dinosaurs had colors, but this statement is not scientific and conveys the false message that dinosaurs like T. rex or Triceratops had colored feathers. Just imagine if Spielberg just read the title and decides to make a Jurassic Park 4 with a T. rex in red and blue feathers! Yes, very cool, but not real!

  4. Pingback: The Weird and Wonderful – 3 « Sam's Adventures

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