Scientists discover dinosaur's true colors

Paleontologists at Yale University say they were able to analyze cells from a fossil to determine the actual coloration of an extinct feathered dinosaur.

Anchiornis huxleyi
Anchiornis huxleyi (click for larger view).

A team of paleontologists at Yale University say they've been able to determine the actual colors of an extinct species of dinosaur.

While many of the illustrations of dinosaurs we see in movies and books are striking, the truth is that much of the way we depict our jurassic friends is based on educated guesswork. But a few teams of scientists now say they have been able to determine a dinosaur's coloring with more precision. And one dino, in particular, has been color-mapped from head plume to toe.

Anchiornis huxleyi was a four-winged, feathered dinosaur that lived during the late Jurassic period in China. And, according to researchers, it had a mostly gray body with black and white striped wings and a sweet orange mohawk atop its beaked (and toothy) head.

The team, led by Yale professor Richard Prum, analyzed melanosomes (the melanin-containing part of a cell that gives an animal its pigmentation) present in the entire fossil of one animal. That allowed them to determine color variations throughout the body--down to individual feathers.

The breakthrough came thanks to Yale graduate student Jakob Vinther, who discovered that tiny granules previously thought to be bacteria were actually melanosomes. After analyzing the melanosomes present in the fossil, the team was able to compare that data with the types of melanosomes known to create particular colors in modern-day birds.

And what did Anchiornis huxleyi do with those flashy feathers? It didn't fly, they say. Rather, the feathers were likely used as camouflage or to attract mates.

The team's report appears in Thursday's issue of the journal Science. It follows a related study of the same animal conducted by colleagues in China who helped identify two of the melanosomes present in the fossil record.

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Jennifer Guevin is managing editor at CNET, overseeing the ever-helpful How To section, special packages, and front-page programming. As a writer, she gravitates toward science, quirky geek culture stories, robots, and food. In real life, she mostly just gravitates toward food.

 

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