Dinosaur color and coloration has long been a debated conversation amongst kids, dinosaur enthusiasts, and scientists alike. Recently, new findings and research has made it possible for paleontologists, biologists, and scientists to determine, with “water-tight” confidence, the actual color of feathered dinosaurs.
Scientists are beginning to learn the true colors of many dinosaurs. New discoveries of well-preserved dinosaurs are giving us the ability to find remnants of melanosomes, or pigments, that reveal just what color these dinosaurs really were. For the first time in history, we are starting, with some degree of confidence, to recreate dinosaurs based on their true colors.
Revealing the True Color of Dinosaurs
In the first part of our series on dinosaur color, we looked specifically at the color of dinosaur skin. We learned that, with the help of special lasers, Dr. Vinther was able to determine the true color of the nodosaur (also called the “mummified dinosaur”) and the Psittacosaurus (or parrot lizard).
Today, I want to focus, not on the color of dinosaur skin, but feathers. There have been many amazing discoveries of dinosaur fossils with feathers that have given rise to a list of dinosaurs that we are pretty confident of their true colors.
Some of those dinosaurs include:
- Anchiornis huxleyi
- Caihong juji
How do know the true color of Dinosaur Feathers?
Before we look at the colors of the most recent feathered dinosaur discoveries, let me explain how scientists are able to determine the true color of dinosaur feathers.
First, feathers contain melanosomes.
Melanosomes contain melanin.
Melanin is a light absorbing pigment that determines what color an animal’s skin, feathers, or hair will be.
The different shapes of Melanosomes, with the pigments inside, reflect light in a specific way and that reflected light gives the skin, or feathers, color.
How do we know all this? Well, we can look at the feathers of birds, which scientists call modern dinosaurs, and then compare those melanosome structures to the ones found in ancient dinosaur fossils.
For instance, if a red bird has a Melanosomes structure that looks like short and round rods, then… it is safe to say that if a fossilized feather has the same structure then it too must have had red plumage.
Scientists know that:
- Long skinny melanosomes = black and grey color
- Short and round melanosomes = reddish color
Here is an example of Melanosomes structures of a few modern birds.
If you really want to see very detailed images of fossilized feather scans click here: PNAS.org
What We Now Know About the Color of Dinosaur Feathers?
Using this technique of studying the shapes of melanosomes and comparing them to modern bird feathers, we can determine the true color of dinosaurs with feathers. If a dinosaur had feathers, and if we can analyze the fossils of those feathers, then we can, for the first time, have a scientifically generated guess of what color these dinosaurs really were.
Of course, there is controversy surrounding this method. For that reason, it is hard to say with the utmost confidence that we “know” their real colors. But, it sure seems much closer to revealing the truth about dinosaur coloration than just guessing.
Now… let’s look at some pictures of the actual dinosaurs that scientists have determined their true colors.
Sinosauropteryx Was a Reddish Brown Color
The Sinosauropteryx was the first dinosaur that scientists applied the technique explained above to scientifically determine its true colors.
The Sinosauropteryx is a turkey-shaped theropod dinosaur. Its name means “Chinese reptilian wing.” It lived in northeastern China during the early Cretaceous period.
The Sinosauropteryx is famous because it was the first dinosaur to be found with evidence of feathers. Not only that but the melanosomes structures, which tell us what color it might have been, were well-preserved in some of its feathers.
The fossil reveals that his tail was ringed with dark bands of feather bristles. After analyzing these bristles, Dr. Benton (at the University of Bristol, UK) found melanosomes that had such a shape to produce an orange-brownish color, concluding that,
“These dark stripes, as far as we can tell, were exclusively ginger, and so this early dinosaur with its long thin tail had ginger and white stripes up the tail.”Dr. Benton
Dr. Benton went so far as to call this new evidence for a dinosaur’s true color as watertight! Which means, he is so confident in this method that there are no holes, or leaks, in his findings.
“For the first time ever, we have evidence, we believe fairly watertight evidence, of the original color.”Dr. Benton
The Anchiornis’ True Colors
Anchiornis huxleyi is a very small, about the size of a black crow, four-winged paravian dinosaur. Its name means “T.H. Huxley’s near-bird.” This is a very unique dino-bird because it had four wings. Many fossils reveal that this dinosaur was fully feathered, which means, it had feathers on most – if not all – of its body.
A very well preserved fossil of Anchiornis was found in China and is now at the Beijing Museum of Natural History. Scientists examined the feathers in 2010 and, of course, discovered the melanosomes that give feathers color.
Here is the full description of Anchiornis’ True Colors found on Wikipedia:
“The study found that most of the body feathers of this Anchiornis specimen were gray and black. The crown feathers were mainly rufous with a gray base and front, and the face had rufous speckles among predominantly black head feathers. The forewing and hindwing feathers were white with black tips. The coverts (shorter feathers covering the bases of the long wing feathers) were gray, contrasting the mainly white main wings. The larger coverts of the wing were also white with gray or black tips, forming rows of darker dots along mid-wing. These took the form of dark stripes or even rows of dots on the outer wing (primary feather coverts) but a more uneven array of speckles on the inner wing (secondary coverts). The shanks of the legs were gray other than the long hindwing feathers, and the feet and toes were black.”wiki
Following that description, here are a few artistic renderings of the real color of the Anchiornis.
The Rainbow Dinosaur
The Caihong (pronounced: kay – hong) dinosaur lived in China during the Late Jurassic. It is another small winged theropod dinosaur (about the size of a duck) that we’ve been able to determine its true colors based on the melanosomes found in its fossilized feathers.
Its name, Caihong, literally means “rainbow.”
Oooo, now I’m getting excited. Is this a rainbow dinosaur?
Jonathan invented a dinosaur costume for Halloween several years ago that he called the “Imaginationasaurus.” Fittingly, the Imaginationasaurus was a rainbow dinosaur and it was AWESOME!!
Anyway… back to the real rainbow dinosaur, Caihong.
After analyzing the melanosomes in the dinosaur’s fossilized feathers, scientists determined that it was covered in iridescent feathers which are very similar to modern-day hummingbirds.
That means it would have glittered with the colors of the rainbow.
If you’ve ever seen a hummingbird they can be very colorful.
Sometimes this rainbow dinosaur is referred to as Caihong juji, which means “rainbow with big crest.” It is often seen with a big crest like this:
The Shiny Black Microraptor
Last, but not least, we know the color of the famous Microraptor. The Microraptor was a small four-winged paravian dinosaur that lived in China. It is dated in the early Cretaceous. We have several well-preserved fossils of the Microraptor which made it possible to determine its true colors.
Here is the full description of the Microraptor found on Wikipedia:
In March 2012, Quanguo Li et al. determined the plumage coloration of Microraptor based on the new specimen BMNHC PH881, which also showed several other features previously unknown in Microraptor… cells were shaped in a manner consistent with black, glossy coloration in modern birds. These rod-shaped, narrow melanosomes were arranged in stacked layers, much like those of a modern starling, and indicated iridescence in the plumage of Microraptor.
And… Here is an artistic rendering and pictures of the shiny black Microraptor:
This is a great video from the American Museum of Natural History that goes into great detail about the color formation of the Microraptor and the process used to determine its true color and how they created the drawings, or artistic renderings, of the black and shiny Microraptor.
I see Mark Norell in several videos about dinosaurs and coloration. I love the way he says the word “dinosaur.” It reminds me of that DNA animation in the first Jurrasic Park movie.
So, there you have it, we actually know what color some dinosaurs were. The ability for scientists to analyze fossilized dinosaur feathers has made it possible for us to determine what color many feathered dinosaurs were. It’s much easier, it seems, to determine the color of feathered dinosaurs than it is to determine the color of dinosaurs that had rough reptile-like skin.
Feathers are more easily preserved as fossils than dinosaur skin.
Now that scientists have determined that dinosaurs are related to birds, I imagine we will soon begin to find more and more evidence of the true colors of dinosaurs.
The long debate about what color dinosaurs really were is starting to become a field of study that is finally being able to answer those questions. And that is very exciting.