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:
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.