How Do We Know What Color Dinosaurs Were?

By: Reuben Westmaas

These creatures were more than just brown and green.

August 01, 2019

There are some things we might never know about dinosaurs. What colors were they? What did they sound like? How did T. rex apply sunscreen? Lucky for us, science is there to answer those questions. Well, one of them, anyway.

168839856

168839856

A Sinosauropteryx dinosaur resting on a log.

Photo by: Getty Images/Alvaro Rozalen/Stocktrek Images

Getty Images/Alvaro Rozalen/Stocktrek Images

Rainbowsauruses

It's just common sense that you can't tell what color dinosaurs were, right? After all, it's not like you'll be able to see greens and oranges on fossilized bones (and even if you could, that would just tell you what color their bones were). Sure, there are also skin imprints that tell us if they were scaly, like Triceratops, or feathered, like Velociraptor, but those are just shapes in the mud. They aren't enough to tell you what they really looked like.

But in 2010, a close examination of the feathers of Sinosauropteryx resulted in a surprising reveal. Discovered in 1996, Sinosauropteryx was the first dinosaur we found with feathers (though that might be splitting hairs since the line between bird and dino is notoriously blurry). When examined under a microscope, however, those feathers were found to have surviving melanosomes: the tiny, cellular organelles that generate melanin, and thus, pigment.

Even so, big deal, right? After all, we could have assumed that those dinos had melanosomes — it's not as if we assumed they were colorless. But the whole reason they decided to look at Sinosauropteryx's feathers in the first place was a discovery that made the color-producing process a lot less mysterious.

Melano-So Much for Green Scales

You'll find melanosomes in pretty much every animal, but it wasn't until 2008 that a team of researchers from Yale began looking for them in fossilized birds as well. They did so with an eye toward comparing them to modern birds, and what they found indicated the relationship between the physical shape of the melanosomes and the pigment that they would produce. One 40-million-year-old specimen, for example, was found to have iridescent qualities, since differently-shaped melanosomes were found arranged in a staggered pattern that would appear different depending on what angle they were viewed from.

So what color were dinosaurs? For now, we can't answer that question for every dino, but when it comes to Sinosauropteryx, the picture is nearly complete. And very raccoon-like. These little beasts, which were only about a meter (three feet) long, had a robber mask around their eyes, dark, reddish coloration on their backs, a pale belly, and long striped tails.

In its own way, it's not too surprising that a dinosaur would bear such a close resemblance to a living animal it has no relation to — color patterns evolve because they work, and because they work, they evolve more than once. So the next time you think of dinosaurs, picture your raptors with leopard prints, your duckbills with zebra stripes, or your ornithomimuses with bright blue peacock plumage.

This article first appeared on Curiosity.com.

Next Up

The First Dinosaur Fossil Was Named Before We Had A Word For Dinosaurs

A professor of geology was the first to identify a dinosaur correctly.

How Much Gold is Left in the World?

The Curiosity Daily podcast catches gold fever.

How the Mediterranean Became a Corridor of Death for Birds

Across the world, the bird population is thinning due to illegal poaching and habitat loss, especially in Europe and Africa during migratory seasons. Conservation groups globally are trying to protect our nearly extinct feathered creatures.

How the World’s Largest Delta Might Slowly Go Under Water

The uneven rise of the sea impacts communities in South Asia

What You Need to Know About the Amazon Rainforest Fires and How You Can Help

The Amazon rainforest is burning at a record rate. Here is what you need to know.

Octopuses Don't Have Tentacles!

What exactly do these cephalopods have then?

This Giant Ichthyosaur Might Have Been Bigger Than a Blue Whale

This normal-looking reptile may be the largest animal that ever existed.

Bigger, Badder, Fatter: Fat Bear Week 2019 is Here

It's time for the bears to pack on the salmon and prepare for winter hibernation, but first they must compete in a battle of the fattest: Fat Bear Week.

Saving the World’s Gibbons Monkeys

Gibbon monkeys, who live in the evergreen tropical rainforests of Southeast Asia, are the most endangered primate species in the world.

Romeo the Frog is Fighting for the Last-known Loa Water Frogs

Last month, the world’s loneliest frog found his one and only Juliet. Now, his luck has turned as he's reunited with even more Loa Water frogs that were rescued from a single stream in Chile. He's his story.