Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The first hints of a dinosaur's true colors

An artist's rendition of a single Sinosauropteryx. Jim RobbinsThe Sinosauropteryx was a turkey-sized, flesh-eating dinosaur that scientists believe had primitive feathers and dark rings around its tail. Jim Robbins

by Nell Greenfieldboyce

January 27, 2010
Scientists have found evidence of some of the original coloration of a dinosaur that lived about 125 million years ago, showing that it had rings of orange-brown bristly feathers around its tail.

Fossils have revealed a lot about the lives of dinosaurs, but researchers always used to think that the fossil record couldn't show what color they were. "This was the one point at which we had to give up," says paleontologist Mike Benton at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, who explains that fossils tend to preserve an animal's hard parts, like bones and teeth, and not soft parts like skin.

But feathers are made of tough proteins. "And, in fact, they can survive even in conditions where other internal organs, you know, muscles and guts and brains and so on, will disappear," says Benton.

That created the possibility of learning something about what colors could be found in the primitive feathers of early birds and recently discovered feathered dinosaurs.

"These dark stripes, as far as we can tell, were exclusively ginger, and so this early dinosaur with its long thin tail had ginger and white stripes up the tail," says Benton.

He says they assume the tail must have been completely covered with primitive feathers, with alternating orange-brown and white stripes. The white feathers would not have contained any melanin capsules, which means they would have had less structural strength and would have decayed rather than being preserved in the fossil.

"For the first time ever, we have evidence, we believe fairly watertight evidence, of the original color," says Benton. …

The First Hints Of A Dinosaur's True Colors

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