The True Colors of Dinosaurs

For over 200 hundred million years, dinosaurs reigned supreme on Earth, and yet we still are not precisely sure what they looked like. Although we have their fossilized skeletons, the relatively recent discovery that they had feathers turned their exact physical appearance into an enigma for us.

Now, however, the University of Manchester partnered with an international team of researchers and found a way to discover the true colors of these creatures, literally.

Scientists have discovered a method to analyze melanin in feathers. This pigment is the reason why humans have varied skin color. It is also found in the majority of birds and mammals. Melanin, though, is not a uniform substance and there are different types of it. Pheomelanin, for example, brings about reddish colors, while eumelanin makes animals appear black. By charting out the fluorescent maps of modern feathers and measuring which elements are present, scientists can pick up on subtle differences in how the various types of melanin react with these elements. This data can then be applied to fossils.

To examine the remains, scientists opted to use X-rays. These help them perceive the minute disparities, while not causing harm to the fossils. For example, when zinc is present and linked to sulfur in a certain way, it indicates that the reddish melanin was probably in those feathers. Similarly, zinc with no sulfur may point to blackish melanin.

The same team had previously discovered patterns of light and dark on a Confuciusornis Sanctus fossil, a bird similar in size to Archaeopteryx that had the first real beak.

Roy Wogelius, a senior author of this research and a geochemistry professor at the University of Manchester, was quoted in ScienceDaily as saying, “This work on modern animals now provides another chemical ‘key’ for helping us to accurately reconstruct the appearance of long-extinct animals.”

Although for now the colors of more famous dinosaurs, like Velociraptors or Tyrannosaurus rex, remain a mystery, this is the first step to figuring out their true appearance. Don’t be surprised if the next time you’re at a museum you see replicas of colorful feathered dinosaurs.

Researchers studying color in animals both alive and extinct should look into purchasing a colorimeter or spectrophotometer in order to help with analysis. Konica Minolta Sensing has the CM-600d and CM-700d Spectrophotometers. Both are small and portable, making them ideal to bring along into the field, and can measure color consistency. Whether you’re examining fossils, feathers from modern birds or melanin in other mammals, Konica Minolta Sensing has the technology you need.

Privacy Preference Center