Special from National Geographic by Paleontology Editor Chris Sloan
Pigments have been found in fossil dinosaurs for the first time, a new study says.
The finding may also open up a new world of prehistoric color, illuminating the role of color in dinosaur behavior and allowing the first accurately colored dinosaur re-creations, according to the study team.
Read the full story at National Geographic News.
Sinosauropteryx, a turkey-size carnivorous dinosaur, is the first dinosaur—excluding birds, which many paleontologists consider to be dinosaurs—to have its color scientifically established. In a report released online today by the journal Nature, an international team of paleontologists and experts in scanning electron micrography infer that this dinosaur had reddish orange feathers running along its back and a striped tail.
To the naked eye, the fossilized feathers are fine hairlike filaments that give the impression of being soft and downlike. Some researchers proposed that these structures were not feathers at all, however, but the remains of collagen from inside the tail. The new study shows that these structures—visible in this fossil Sinosauropteryx as dark patches along the back and tail—are packed with melanosomes, pigment-carrying, sub-cellular structures found in the feathers of living birds but not in collagen.
The feather of an extinct Confuciusornis bird may have had colors similar to those in this modern feather from a zebra finch, according to the new study. Two types of melanosomes were found. Eumelanosomes (such as the finch eumelanosomes inset at left) are rodlike and associated with the colors black and grey in living birds. Phaeomelanosomes (inset right) are spherical and produce colors ranging from reddish brown to yellow.
An international team of researchers reported finding fossilized rod-shaped eumelanosomes, shown here in a scanning electron micrograph, and spherical phaeomelanosomes in 125-million-year-old fossil birds and dinosaurs from China. Eumelanosomes and phaeomelanosomes are two types of sub-cellular structures called melanosomes that are packed with the dark pigment melanin. Melanosomes are found in abundance within the feathers of living birds, and they have been reported before in fossil feathers.