Dinosaur colour revealed for first time

27 January 2010

It is now possible to work out the colour of dinosaurs and ancient birds as the first evidence of the colour-causing structures in their feathers is revealed today in the journal Nature.

Dinosaur Sinosauropteryx may have had an orange coloured crest

Dinosaur Sinosauropteryx may have had an orange coloured crest © Jim Robbins

A team of Chinese and British scientists identified the tiny structures called melanosomes, which form part of pigment cells, in the fossil feathers of ancient birds and theropod (small meat-eating) dinosaurs. 

The fossils are from the Jehol site in northeastern China and are 125 million years old from the Early Cretaceous period.

Using Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM), the team studied the fossilised melanosome structures in minute detail. 

Feathers and bristles

They found the structures in the feathers of these early birds and in the filaments (feather-like structures), or bristles, on the skin of the dinosaurs.

Dr Paul Barrett, dinosaur and fossil expert at the Natural History Museum, comments on the research. 

'This is the first time we’ve had direct evidence for dinosaur colour, giving us a better appreciation of the appearance of these extinct animals and also hinting at ways in which they may have used their colours for display or other behaviours.'

Identical structures
The 2 types of melanosomes that give different colours in dinosaur and ancient bird feathers

The 2 types of melanosomes that give different colours in fossil feathers of dinosaurs and ancient birds © University of Bristol

The team found that the fossilised melanosome structures were identical to the structure of melanosomes in the feathers of birds living today.

The team says that the dinosaur filaments are probably evolutionary precursors of true feathers. This supports the theory that birds evolved from small theropod dinosaurs and gives more clues to dinosaur and bird evolution.

Melanosomes and colour

The melanosomes in pigment cells store melanins and give the feathers of modern birds their colour. The 2 most common types of melanin are a reddish-brown to yellow pigment (phaeomelanin) and a black-grey pigment (eumelanin) and the team found evidence of both in the fossilised feathers and filaments.

Reconstruct dinosaur colour

It was now possible to reconstruct the reddish-brown and black colour patterns of some of the Cretaceous birds and dinosaurs. The melanosome patterns found in specimens of a theropod dinosaur called Sinosauropteryx, for example, revealed that it had dark coloured stripes along its tail and an orange coloured crest along its back.

Future studies

By studying in more detail the density and patterns of melanosomes in other fossils, scientists will now be able to bring to life, in colour, more dinosaur and extinct bird and mammal species and understand more about the function of coloured feathers.

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