What colour were dinosaur feathers?

By John Pickrell 28 August 2014
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Scientists use a scanning electron microscope to pin down the colour of ‘first bird’ Archaeopteryx .

IN THE 1990s, any book, teacher or scientist would have told you we’d never be able to tell anything about the colour of extinct animals such as dinosaurs. The best we could ever do was make comparisons with living creatures, and often reptiles were deemed to be the best proxies. Most dinosaurs were painted in shades similar to those of crocodiles or monitor lizards – greys, greens and browns.

Since the discovery in China in 1996 of the first feathered dinosaur, Sinosauropteryx (more than 40 feathered species have now been discovered, suggesting that most carnivorous dinosaurs had feathers), the assumption had been that dinosaurs might have had some of the same vast variation in plumage that birds do today, but few people believed such a thing would ever be confirmed.

That was until January 2010, when a remarkable paper in the scientific journal Nature suggested that Sinosauropteryx had sported ginger and white stripes around its tail, perhaps something like the pattern found on ring-tailed lemurs today.

Sinosauropteryx was just the start, and now a series of compelling papers has detailed the colours of Archaeopteryx, Anchiornis and Microraptor

To determine the color of the ‘first bird’ Archaeopteryx, scientists used a scanning electron microscope to analyze a fossilised feather, and here evolutionary biologst Ryan Carney talks about the colour they found. 

John Pickrell is the author of Flying Dinosaurs: How fearsome reptiles became birds, published by NewSouth Books in June 2014. Follow him on Twitter @john_pickrell.


Read the full story in #122 of Australian Geographic