The true colour of dinosaurs

 

A big T-Rex to get you all excited about dinosaurs. Credit: Godzilla1990s via WalkingwithWiki

What colour were the dinosaurs?

In some ways this is an easy question to answer. If you look at animals alive today such as crocodiles and lizards, you can assume that most dinosaurs were a combination of motley greens and greys with arid patterns. On the other hand this question is quite difficult to answer because we really don’t have any evidence of what they look like. Skin does not preserve especially well and in many cases the skin palaeontologists do have access to have lost most of the pigmentation that it had during life.

Mmm, dino KFC 

For the best part of a century, palaeontologists were sure in their assumptions that dinosaurs would have looked just like their reptile counterparts today – the word dinosaur itself means ‘fearsome lizard’. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that significant evidence came to light which changed everything: dinosaurs are the ancestors of modern-day birds and were covered in an array of coloured feathers.

 

Realistic depiction of the raptor dinosaur, Deinonychus. Credit: Domser via Wikimedia Commons

150 million year old marvel

Frustratingly, this conclusion had been staring palaeontologists in the face since the 1860s. In 1861 in Germany, a dinosaur fossil was uncovered that seemingly had more in common with birds than it did dinosaurs. Impressions of feathers were quite prominent in the excellently preserved fossil such that palaeontologists decided to name the animal, Archaeopteryx, which means ‘old wing’ or ‘first bird.’

 

Fossilized Archaeopteryx specimen from Germany. Note the feather impressions in the rock. Credit: Vesta via Wikimedia Commons

What came first: the dinosaur or the bird?

Around this time Charles Darwin was also publishing his most famous and arguably one of the most important pieces of scientific literature of all time, ‘On the Origin of Species.’ The discovery of Archaeopteryx seemed to prove his theory that hybrid species exist that bridge the gap between different groups of organisms, such as dinosaurs and birds. Many leading palaeontologists at the time disputed this theory and suggested that Archaeopteryx was a dinosaur-like bird rather than a bird-like dinosaur.

Getting an ‘inkling’ of what dinosaurs looked like

Fast forward to today and scientists are using cutting-edge analytical techniques to understand what colours and pigments dinosaurs displayed on their feathers and skin. The premise behind this study was first pioneered back in 2006. A Yale graduate, Jakob Vinther, was studying the fossilized ink of a squid when he realised something: the melanin pigment found in the squid’s ink is also found in the pigments that give feathers their colour!

Melanin is the pigment found in hair, skin, feathers and eyes. It can also create a variety of different hues and metallic sheens. Melanin comes in two forms: either a sausage-shape (black) or a meatball-shaped variant which gives off a rusty red hue.

Comparing the melanin shapes found in the fossilised dinosaurs with that of modern-day birds Vinther was able to elucidate some valuable discoveries. First, he was able to reconstruct the colour pattern of Anchiornis huxleyi, a small, feathered dinosaur from China. Anchiornis was found to be mostly covered in a grey plumage of feathers that were more akin to fur than actual feathers.

 

Sinosauropteryx as it would’ve looked in real life. Credit: Robert Nicholls via Wikimedia Commons

Ginger dinosaurs are dinosaurs too!

Next, Vinther made an even more astonishing discovery, one that red heads all around the world will be happy to hear, the first ginger dinosaur! The pattern identified on a small, fuzz-covered dinosaur, Sinosaurop­teryx, implied that it had sported a reddish coat and a tiger-striped tail. Being able to correctly illustrate dinosaurs as they would’ve looked in real life was a huge step forwards for palaeontologists, giving researchers new information on the habitat and lifestyle of certain types of dinosaurs.

 

Small herbivorous dinosaurs in their natural habitat. Credit: Dellex via Wikimedia Commons

Blending in

Using 3D printed models scientists can now determine what environment some dinosaurs were more suited to based on how their colour scheme fit into different habitats. Comparing optimal shading patterns with those found in the dinosaur pigments has identified canopied forest habitats as ideal locations for small, herbivorous dinosaurs.

Colouring book of dinosaurs

Stopping short of bringing dinosaurs back to life, Jurassic Park-style, identifying the colours and pigments found in fossilized animals gives palaeontologists a real insight into the lifestyle of different dinosaurs. Within the last 20 years there has already been a large ‘dinosaur renaissance’ that has given us a greater understanding of these magnificent beasts – no doubt there will be more revolutionary discoveries to come.

 


5 Responses to “The true colour of dinosaurs”

  1. Erin Campbell-Hooper says:

    This is such a neat discovery! It’s always really interesting to remember that our idea of how things looked at any point in the distant past is completely dependent on what gets preserved and what doesn’t. For those who love David Attenborough, he did a really good mini doco called “Rise of Animals: Triumph of the Vertebrates” in which he talks about one of the earliest feathered dinosaurs and what use colour might have been to them.

  2. Cornelius Aitken says:

    Hey Hugh! Judging by the release of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom I doubt they will change the portrayal of dinosaurs in mainstream media anytime soon. Like you said a feathered dinosaur is nowhere near as impressive to look at. They almost got it right in the Jurassic Park 3 movie with a couple of the raptors having quills on their heads but I have a feeling it really won’t catch on.
    Cheers for the other comments as well guys!

  3. Hugh Rayner says:

    Everyone loves dinosaurs. Always wondered how we could possibly know what colour they were.
    Do you think this will change dinosaur toys for kids in the future? Feathered little guys wouldn’t be as fun, I don’t think.

  4. Ashlen Campbell says:

    Loved this! The sinosauropteryx pattern in the image kind of reminds me of raccoon or red panda fur. It’s so interesting to think dinosaurs would have shared colour schemes and patterns with todays animals.

  5. Xiaohan Hu says:

    Interesting article! Hope we can understand more about dinosaurs by identifying the colours and pigments found in fossils!