Believe it or not, we don’t know as much as you might think about what dinosaurs actually looked or acted like. I know, you’ve probably seen movies like Jurassic World or Walking With Dinosaurs so you’ve “SEEN” dinosaurs and think you know what they look like. It’s right there on the TV so, obviously, it must be true.

However, if you stop to think about it, just for a second, remember that most of all the information that we gather to explore and learn about ancient prehistoric life comes to us through fossils.

And fossils are really just rocks.

And rocks, especially fossils, are mostly grayish or brownish in color.

So… how are we possibly able to know what color dinosaurs were based on looking at fossils? The answer is, “We can’t.” Well, at least not yet…

ANSWER: We don’t really know what color the dinosaurs were because most of what we know about dinosaurs come from fossils – and fossils are petrified bones, or rocks. In order to determine color, paleontologists have to make their best educated ’guess.’ However, recently scientists have discovered several fossils with preserved skin and even guts. With high tech scans and special lasers they have found pigmentation and melosomes and were able to determine the color of several dinosaurs that were covered in skin.

Why is Color So Important?

Asking about dinosaur coloration is a great question. Many paleontologists are very interested in learning ways to determine dinosaur colors. Why is this such a big deal?

Well, at first it may seem like a silly, childlike, kind of question but consider this.

If we can’t find any information about a dinosaur’s color then:

You may be able to think of even more reasons why knowing the color of a dinosaur would be helpful in understanding their behaviors and even their environments.

All this to say, asking questions about  the color of a dinosaurs is not only fun, it’s important.

What We Know, So Far, About Dinosaur Color

We might want to break this conversation into 2 categories:

  1. Dinosaur Skin Colors
  2. Dinosaur Feather Colors

Not all dinosaurs looked the same. There are so many different kinds of dinosaurs spanning so many millions of years. They lived in different types of places, like deserts and forests, ect.

So… it is pretty obvious that there are a huge variety of dinosaurs in prehistoric history. We are now learning that some had feathers. But all dinosaurs didn’t have feather.

I can’t imagine a triceratops or an ankylosaurus with feathers.

I almost hesitate to say that. Who knows, maybe we will find out later that they actually did have feathers. After all, I would have never thought the T. rex had feathers but – here we are – talking about T. rex and his relationship to chickens.

Anyway… I would like to look at what we currently know about dinosaur skin colors before we look at the new things we are clearly learning about dinosaur feathers. There is quite a bit of new findings about dinosaur color as it relates to feathers. I cover that in part 2 of this article here..

What Color Was Dinosaur Skin?

So we don’t know what the dinosaurs really looked like because fossils do not give information about color. But, what if we could extract information from dinosaur skin or from DNA?

You may be wondering, “Has there ever been a dinosaur preserved with skin?”

Well… that is a really good question. It just so happens that we did find at least two notable and amazingly well preserved fossils of dinosaur skin.

  1. Nodosaur – Found in Alberta, Canada in 2011
  2. Psittacosaurus – Found in China

Nodosaur: The “Mummified Dinosaur”

The nodosaur is the older cousin of the ankylosaur. It was armor plated and had 20-inch spikes sticking out of its shoulders. Nodosaur lived in the Cretaceous period about 110 million years ago. It grew to a massive 3,000-pounds and 18 feet long.

In 2011, this “mummified dinosaur” was found accidentally by miners digging with heavy excavation equipment. As the excavator dug through the dirt and rock they hit something so hard that they had to stop. Not only did they find the fossil of an armorplated dinosaur, but it just so happened to be “the best-preserved fossil of its kind ever found.”

National Geographic stated in 2017,

“Today, that dinosaur is one of the best fossils of its kind ever found—and now, it has a name: Borealopelta markmitchelli, a plant-eating, armored dinosaur called a nodosaur that lived during the Cretaceous period. After death, its carcass ended up back-first on the muddy floor of an ancient seaway, where its front half was preserved in 3-D with extraordinary detail.”

National Geographic

Jakob Vinther, who is one of the leading Paleobiologist working on dinosaur coloration, examined the nodosaur and was shocked about how well preserved it was. He even commented that it was so well preserved, it…

“…might have been walking around a couple of weeks ago.”

Jakob Vinther, NG

Vinther, at the University of Bristol, is now pretty famous for studying dinosaur color. If Vinther can find pigments, melanin, and melanosomes in a fossil then he can use fancy lasers to figure out just what color its skin would have been.

Pretty amazing Right?

After Studying Borealopelta markmitchelli, the mummified dinosaur, he determined that it looked like this:

After performing chemical tests on the dinosaur’s skin, Vinther found reddish pigments on most of the dinosaur but also found that the horns had a lighter coloration. Vinther also noticed that it’s underbelly lacked pheomelanin. Which means it had a lightly colored belly.

So, it seems like this armored dinosaur had a reddish body with a white under belly and the horns on his shoulders were highlighted.

By the way, this is a common coloration of animals called countershading, and is used to camouflage the dinosaurs from predators.

So… There you have it. We may know the actual color of at least one dinosaur.

But wait! There’s is still more.


A fossil of Psittacosaurus is on display at the Senckenberg Museum of Natural History in Frankfurt, Germany. This fossil is so well preserved it not only has skin, with pigments, and even some if it’s “guts.”

Psittacosaurus means ‘parrot lizard.’ It is called this because it as a beak that looks like a parrot.

This famous Psittacosaurus provided Dr. Vinther enough data to be able to rebuild a 3d model that has been called “most accurate depiction of a dinosaur ever created.” (the Gardian)

“To get a clear picture of the pigments in the dinosaurs’ skin, Vinther’s team fired a laser at the specimen – think less death-ray and more glow-stick – to highlight fluorescent materials (calcium phosphate) remaining preserved from the animal’s scales. Under an electron microscope, they confirmed the presence of melanosomes: the structures that store pigments in cells and tissues. From there it was a case of photographing the whole fossil and mapping the pigment patterns from the squished Cretaceous dinosaur on to a three-dimensional model.”

They hired a well known paleoartist, to build the first 3d model of a dinosaur made from the inside out. A paleoartist is an artist who works with paleontologist to draw and created dinosaurs for our visual pleasure.

You might imagine that a paleontologist would be great at digging and studying fossils, etc…

…but he might not be very good at drawing.

Paloartists seem to have pretty cool job because they get to create visual pieces that show us what a dinosaur might have looked like with skin on.

Here is what Robert Nicholls said about making the 3D model of the Psittacosaurus:

“Our Psittacosaurus was reconstructed from the inside-out. There are thousands of scales, all different shapes and sizes, and many of them are only partially pigmented. It was a painstaking process but we now have the best suggestion as to what this dinosaur really looked like.”

Robert Nicholls

Now! Would you like to see the finished project?

Here it is:

By the way… you can check out some of Nicholls other work here on his website – Paleo Creations.

As I mentioned earlier, understanding dinosaur coloration is not only fun, it’s important. Now that we know what this Psittacosaurus looked like we can make some better predictions about its behavior and environment.

Vintner and his team has done just that.

“We predicted that the psittacosaurus must have lived in a forest. This demonstrates that fossil colour patterns can provide not only a better picture of what extinct animals looked like, but they can also give new clues about extinct ecologies and habitats.”

Dr. Vinther

Here is video of Dr. Vinther describing his model:


There are 2 famously preserved fossils that have given scientists clues to the colors and color patterns of dinosaur skin.

I think we can expect mountains of more research and breakthroughs when it comes to learning about the color of dinosaurs. Now that Vinther has created the 1st most accurate depiction of a dinosaur ever, I’m guessing we can look forward to more 3D models made from the inside out.

If you like to draw dinosaurs, this is a great time to fine tune your craft of paleoart.