A couple of weeks ago I described the report in Nature that suggested it was possible to determine what colour feathered dinosaurs were. Now there’s a report in Science magazine – not yet published – that does the same trick, with a different dino. Jerry Coyne has blogged on this over at The beast in question is Anchiornis huxleyi, a small (woodpecker-sized) feathered but non-flying dinosaur from about 150 million years ago. It looks cute:

Reconstruction of the plumage color of  Anchiornis huxleyi.   Color plate by Michael A. Digiorgio, from Science.

The authors say that because it was a non-flying dinosaur, these striking feathers suggest that colouration (and hence signalling or camouflage) may have been as important as aerodynamics in the early evolution of feathers. Jerry points out that you had to have feathers first, so the first appearance of feathers must have had some other advantage.

However, without wishing to be cynical, maybe this is all a big yawn. Certainly, it will be tough to get such papers published it high ranking journals again (I can’t see Nature filling its pages with pretty reconstructions of feathered dinos), so unless they can work out what colour Stegosaurs were (they didn’t have feathers. We think), or make some similar striking novel insight it I reckon that’s it.

Indeed, depending on how complicated it is to carry out these analyses (and only a few fossils apparently retain the necessary melanosomes) there may even be a decline in this kind of work, because it couldn’t be published in the likes of Nature or Science, in that it would just be one more coloured dinosaur.

However, there is another point, raised by two posters, Bex and Finch, on my previous article. Both of them yawned, for different reasons. Are they right?

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!


Filed under Dinosaurs


  1. I would say yes and no. Yes, because it’s not hard to see an option in science, where you get an idea of a striking, colourful and imaginative picture and work on getting this attached to some article and published – because of Nature’s bias towards – in Bex words – tedious science.

    No, because thanks to this, there is another white spot painted with colours on the map of our knowledge. When you get an option: do you want to know something more about an animal or not, I will always say yes, even when it involves colourful feathers!

  2. NewEnglandBob

    I like ekolog’s “no” paragraph – advancing knowledge is worth it for its own sake.

  3. Knowing the color of dinosaurs is really neat (“astonishingly mindblowing” as I put it at, and it’s a nice extension of the range of phenomena subject to historical inference, but it isn’t real important in our understanding of dinosaurs. (The most important thing about Anchiornis is its age.) I take issue with Finch’s claim that it was “not scientific” to call Anchiornis a dinosaur. Anchiornis is a dinosaur, and there’s nothing wrong in calling it that. The authors of the color paper also call it a troodontid, maniraptoran, and theropod, and its also a reptile, amniote, tetrapod, vertebrate, etc. Only an especially uninformed and uncareful reader could think that the paper referred to Triceratops or Tyrannosaurus.

  4. Integument (skin, feathers, claws etc.) is an important avenue for adaptive evolutionary change since it interacts with the physical environment (abrasion, locomotion etc.) and serves important roles in inter- and intraspecific interactions. Understanding the biology of extinct dinosaur feathers (function, development, evolution) is reasonably interesting and important, partly due to the popularity of birds and dinosaurs and the inordinate attention paid to their evolutionary relationships, but also because these were (and are) successful, diverse organisms that have left a good enough fossil record to address questions that are normally beyond reach. I agree that what has been done so far doesn’t necessarily tell us that much conclusively but it does potentially open some avenues for future work. It would be premature to write it off as a blind alley already.

    A bit of an aside, but there are lots of questions about the lifestyle and locomotory habits of Anchiornis that are just getting swept under the rug in all this as well.

  5. Bex

    Ok, it seems we need a clarification. I didn’t say it is NOT important. I wonder if … is this THAT important. It is not a black-or-white stuff. I mean … yes, we have another spot on the map of our knowledge (ekolog) and this is always good. And I am totally convinced that “advancing knowledge is worth it for its own sake” (Bob), and that dinosaurs are a very interesting biological model (Neil). But that’s not the point. When I ask “is this SO important?” I refer to the hundreds of television channels and newspapers stressing this “incredible” discovery, tens and tens of blogs discussing this point. Nobody can deny that big journals like Nature or Science are more interested in “cosmetic” papers (Finch) than in really scientifically interesting results. This paper could well have been published in a zoological or paleontological journal (a very good one, for sure) being the scientific information relevant, but as relevant are tens of papers every month. If we keep on supporting “cosmetic” science, society will never become aware of what science really is. The interpretation will be that science (zoology, in this case) is a tale, a nicely decorated curiosity aimed at filling a conversation during a tea-break. I think that this can be good on the short term (money, visibility) but more dangerous on the long (and cultural) term. Of course, it depends by one’s intentions!

    • NewEnglandBob

      “I refer to the hundreds of television channels and newspapers stressing this “incredible” discovery, tens and tens of blogs discussing this point. Nobody can deny that big journals like Nature or Science are more interested in “cosmetic” papers (Finch) than in really scientifically interesting results. ”

      The media are whores when it comes to publishing what people like. Otherwise, how could one explain fashion news where some dumb looking piece of colored and cut cotton is displayed and oo-ed and ah-ed for an entire week and then on to the next. Humans are lazy and science makes them think. They want to be entertained (look, pretty colors, flashing lights!) for about three minutes before they get another beer.

  6. Finch

    I have never said that Anchiornis is not a dinosaur (Mayer). I just said that the title and many statements in the ms are too general and so convey the false, that is all dinosaurs had coloured feathers. Keep in mind that a Journal like Nature is read by million of uninformed and uncareful readers. And this is why we publish articles, I mean the aim of a scientific article is also to make all people informed about “true” things, and not “cosmetic” ones. Claiming that this is what humans like to hear (New England Bob) in order to justify the behaviour of many scientists is not “science”! This is not the correct way of “advancing knowledge”, but of advancing career!

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

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