Feathered dinosaurs—in color!

I was going to post on this, but Matthew Cobb beat me to it.  (If you’re not looking in at his online Z-letter, you’re missing some good biology.)  In today’s Nature is a nice article by a group of scientists from China, Ireland, and the UK, showing that color-bearing organelles (“melanosomes”) can be preserved in some fossils, giving us a clue to the color of ancient animals in life.  In this way they found out that the “feathered dinosaur” Sinosauropteryx had reddish-brown stripes on the tail!

They also found similar melanosomes in fossils of early birds.  Because melanosomes were previously known from living birds but not from dinosaurs or ancient birds, this gives additional evidence (as if we needed any!) that birds evolved from theropod dinosaurs. See Matthew’s post (and the Nature article, if you have access) for more.

Fig. 1.  Sinosauropteryx, replete with colored feathers. Illustration by James Robins (from report on National Geographic website).

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F. Zhang, S. L. Kearns, P. J. Orr, M. J. Benton, Z. Zhou, D. Johnson,  X. Xu and X. Wang.  2010.  Fossilized melanosomes and the colour of Creteaceous dinosaurs and birds.  Nature online, 27 January.

12 thoughts on “Feathered dinosaurs—in color!

  1. That’s great; it’s amazing that pigmentation structures have been preserved. I wonder if there are comparable techniques applicable to determining the color of other dinos. Many contemporary lizards like the gecko, horny toad, chameleon, and so on can alter their coloration; I’ve always wondered how they accomplished that. If some dinos had that sort of ability, would it be possible to prove it?

    One thing that always annoyed me an awful lot in pseudo-science documentaries are those depictions of dinosaurs with some color and never any mention that the graphics are nothing more than an artist’s impression and that there is not even always agreement on the posture of a particular fossil animal. I think shows like that do science a great disservice by giving people incorrect impressions of what we really do know.

    @Ophelia: You’ll have to get in touch with those scientists who proposed devolving a chicken back into a dinosaur. After all who wouldn’t want a ferocious guard chicken? It would be almost as good as that bunny in Monty Python’s The Holy Grail.

  2. Mad Scientist: it is only the remarkable style of preservation of the Yixian Formation that allowed the Chinese-Bristol team to be able to recover SEM images of the melanosomes: sadly, most preservational environments do not preserve that level of detail. (All that being said, there are LOT of additional organisms (birds and other dinos; lizards; mammals; etc.) in the Yixian Formation which might be studied in this fashion.)

    And I absolutely agree with that problem of dino documentaries. As a consultant to/talking head on a number of them, I really regret when we are not able to explain how we know what we know, and how we speculate on what we don’t (or, alternatively, that when we do this that footage is left on the cutting room floor.) But sadly scientists are not documentary makers: the documentarians write their scripts, prioritize their message, etc., themselves, often independent of consulting the subject experts.

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