#64: What Color Is Your Dinosaur?

By Amy BarthDec 16, 2010 6:00 AM
A fossilized Sinosauropteryx, the first dinosaur to have its colors revealed. | Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, Bejing


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

Some 125 million years ago, a chicken-size Sinosauropteryx, an early relative of T. rex, scampered through northeastern China. From its remains, we know a lot about this dinosaur: It was covered with spiny hair, it ate meat, and it walked on its hind legs. And now we know what color it was. Last January researchers determined that Sinosauropteryx sported a striped chestnut and white tail—the first time anyone has been able to describe a dinosaur’s color.

Mike Benton, a paleontologist at the University of Bristol in England, had set out to show that Sinosauropteryx’s hairlike bristles were precursors to the feathers on today’s birds. Examining those fossilized bristles through a powerful microscope, he did more than confirm his hypothesis: He also noticed that the bristles were brimming with melanosomes, color-bearing cell parts found in modern avian feathers. The shape of melanosomes determines their hue, and the more packed they are, the darker the shade. The round melanosomes in Sinosauropteryx indicate a dark red shade arranged in a striped pattern.

Now that he knows what to look for, Benton hopes to unveil the colors of other feathered dinosaurs, helping scientists trace their relationship to birds and even decode their social behavior. “These primitive feathers evolved before wings,” he says, “so it’s likely they first evolved for insulation and display rather than flight.”

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2023 Kalmbach Media Co.