Go find one of your old dinosaur books from your childhood. Take your time, I’ll wait.
Flip through it, and see if you can find the disclaimer regarding the appearance of dinosaurs. Every book with dinosaur illustrations has one. It says something like “we will never know exactly what color the dinosaurs were” and states that the reconstructions in the book, and in all books, are and will always be purely artistic conjecture.
You are now justified in hawking that book at a garage sale, because it is WRONGITY WRONG WRONG WRONG!
Like more than half of every other earth shattering dinosaur discovery in the past decade or so, this all comes courtesy of those delightful feathered dinosaurs of China. Their feathers are so well preserved that they include melanosomes, the cellular organelles that contain melanin. Using a scanning electron microscope, scientists can determine what kind of melanosomes are present in the feathers, and infer color from them.
Several dinosaur feathers have given tantalizing clues about color, but a complete color reconstruction of a dinosaur has only now been offered. In this week’s Science, for the first time ever, we can finally see what a dinosaur looked like (well, with 90% certainty, anyway). The subject was Anchiornis huxleyi, a troodontid* from 155 MYA. They took 29 small samples from all over its body, and examined the melanosome combination to determine coloring.
Ready? Here it is!
Pretty sweet, huh? Looks like a woodpecker and a Hamburg chicken got really drunk one night, and kept on drinking, resulting in birth defects such as teeth.
I have some questions, though. According to the first link:
As described in last week’s study there are two major varieties of melanosomes: eumelanosomes (associated with black-grey shades) and phaemelanosomes (indicative of reddish to yellow tints).
What causes cool colors like blue and green? Is that something that can still be assumed in these dinos, or can the researchers rule them out somehow? I switched my major from biology to graphic design, and while my biology is at hobbyist level, my graphics side asks how you get cool colors from warm colors+shades of gray.
Ah well. It’s still pretty cool.
EDIT: Jared provided a link in the comments that helps answer this question. There are other structures that lend to coloring bird feathers, some of which could conceivably be fossilized. Thanks!
*Troodontids, for the uninitiated, are kind of like dainty “raptor”** dinosaurs. The namesake species, Troodon, is well known as the “brainiest” dinosaur, with the largest brain in comparison to its size.
** By the way, the technical term for “raptor” dinosaurs are Dromaeosaurs. You’re welcome.