The Colors of Dinosaurs

“What color were dinosaurs?”

The most common question any paleontologist ever gets asked has also been, historically, the one with the least satisfying answer. When faced with it, many launch into an explanation of how colors don’t fossilize, the mechanics of reconstructing animals from the bones up, the idea of drawing from related or convergent species. Others, more taciturn, simply say “We don’t know.”

For the most part, that edict still stands. When gazing into the eye sockets of the mighty Tyrannosaurus rex, or staring in awe at the jumble of Triceratops, Stegosaurus, and Apatosaurus that litter our institutions like lions in a zoo, we must simply throw up our hands and say in essence, “We don’t know what color they are, and likely never will.”

It’s part of the mystery of dinosaurs. To such visual creatures as Homo sapiens, the lack of color in dinosaurs is a driving bit of their mystique. How strange these creatures must be, if we cannot tell even their patterns and hues with certainty!

And then…this happened.

The Colors of Dinosaurs

Sinosauropteryx Colors, by Asher Elbein

In a frankly stunning one-two punch, two separate teams of scientists broke a color barrier that’s been in place for millions of years. The first team, Led by University of Bristol’s Mike Benton, used electron microscopes to scan the preserved feathers of the tiny Sinosauropteryx and concluded that the tail and portions of the body were covered in ginger hued fluff, as well as white rings that adorned the tail.

The Colors of Dinosaurs

Anchiornis color scheme

Only weeks later, the second team did them one better. Where Benton’s team had gotten a fairly good glimpse at bits of feathers, they hadn’t seen the color scheme of the entire animal. Dr. Prum’s team, on the other hand, had. Analyzing a little protobird known as Anchiornis, Prum and his colleagues found that it was patterned like a pileated woodpecker (and thus proving that what’s black, white, and red all over is neither newspaper nor unfortunate zebra, but a dinosaur.)

The Colors of Dinosaurs

This is all very exciting, but what’s really interesting is how this was all found out. It turns out that there are microscopic structures in feathers called melanosomes. Melanosomes come in all kinds of different shapes, and each shape codes for a different color. Knowing this, the scientists analyzed the preserved feathers of Sinosauropteryx and Anchiornis for melanosomes, and to their delight they found them. From there it was a (relatively) simple task to decode the colors of the animals. The discovery also had the happy side effect of proving, more or less once and for all, that the preserved feathers were exactly that, not artifacts in the rock or collagen fibers as some had posited.

So what now? A door has opened before us, one thought to be locked forever. Any feathered dinosaur can be analyzed this way, as long as its melanosomes are sufficiently well preserved. A new and exciting oppurtunity has opened up before us. But as for dinosaurs will scaly skin, the prospects are a bit more mixed. It’s not not clear that the same processes that analyze feathers can be made to work for skin impressions, especially those of scales. But who knows? Perhaps one day we will know for certain what colors even beasts like Tyrannosaurus were.

Asher Elbein has been writing about dinosaurs in one capacity or another for five years, most recently in the magazines Prehistoric Times and Teen Ink. He’s collaborated with Fernbank Museum of Natura ...read more

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