Forget everything you thought you knew about dinosaurs. It turns out that they weren’t necessarily the green scaly creatures many of us imagine. (Or purple and fluffy.) At least one of them had… get this… ginger feathers.
Much of what we know about dinosaurs comes from fossils which are great for size and shape, but not always that hot on color. That’s changed thanks to a link made by researchers in China and the United Kingdom.
A fossil found and analyzed a couple of years ago in Northern China contained immaculately preserved bird feathers which were in such good condition that an electron microscope could show their melanosomes. These are structures containing melanin, the pigment which determines the color of hair or fur.
Different shaped melanosomes produce different colors, with those in the case of the bird feathers being more spherical, which produces variations on red hair.
Researchers in Britain have now cross-referenced this discovery with a dinosaur known as Sinosauropteryx. Fossils showed it had a rim of bristles which were thought to be the base of feathers but this hadn’t previously been confirmed. Some scientists had argued this rim was in fact collagen.
Now closer study, using the lessons from the bird, shows that the dinosaur did indeed have feathers, arranged like a Mohican haircut then ran the entire length of its back. Even stranger, analysis of the melanosomes shows these feathers ran in ginger and white stripes.
There’s more to the discovery than the potential for coloring books to become more accurate, though. It gives much more backing to the idea that Sinosauropteryx’s family, the therapods, evolved into birds. It also shows that feathers did not originate to aid flight, instead most likely evolving to produce warmth.
The analysis can also be used on fossils of other dinosaurs to gain more knowledge about their coloring and whether this was used for attracting mates or as a form of camouflage.