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Is This Dinosaur Painted Correctly?

The animal above, with the fetching punk haircut is Anchiornis huxleyi—a small Chinese feathered dinosaur, about the size of a pigeon. If you look at any image of this creature from the past several years, you’ll probably find the same colour scheme—a body of black and grey, black-and-white stripes on the wings, and a red crest and freckles.

That’s because, in 2010, a group of scientists reconstructed Anchiornis’ colours. It was one of the first of several papers that heralded a renaissance of dinosaur art, assigning actual palettes to creatures whose colour schemes were long thought to be unknowable. Colours, after all, don’t fossilise.

But melanosomes do. These tiny pigment-containing structures are found in feathers and contribute to the colours of living birds. They were also found in the feathers of dinosaurs, and withstood the harsh fossilisation process. Look at the right fossil feathers, and you can still see the melanosomes. Their shape reflects their hues—round meatball-shaped ones are reddish-brown, while long sausage-shaped ones are blackish-grey. By studying the shapes of the fossilised melanosomes, scientists like Jakob Vinther from the University of Bristol have been able to reconstruct dinosaur colours.

But a new study raises some questions about their technique. Melanosomes, it turns out, shrink and distort when they become fossilised, so Anchiornis might have looked very differently to the image above.

Is the melanosomes technique in trouble? Not quite. I cover the new study, and the counterarguments, over at Nature News. Head over there for the rest of the story.

More on dinosaur colours:


One thought on “Is This Dinosaur Painted Correctly?

  1. There was a nice discussion on “Palaeocast” with a post doc named Maria McNamara of the problems involved in determining colors from fossil evidence including the age of the animal when it died, and what happens to pigments after death. Like you say, though, this is an exciting area of study and very promising. Just the fact that we can find traces of melanosomes is itself, a huge leap forward.

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