If you were asked to describe a dinosaur, what color or colors would immediately come to mind? For a lot of people, the first color they think of might be green, closely followed by brown, but why is that? Well, the dinosaurs were giant reptiles, weren’t they? That being so, we’d expect them all to be green and brown, but is that close to the truth?
Dinosaurs, while depicted as shades of green, and brown were actually many different colors. Research by Jakob Vinthers has discovered melanosomes in fossilized dinosaurs that is redefining color preconceptions. Dinosaur color examples include a black microraptor, a red Anchiornis and chestnut brown Sinosauropteryx.
In this article, we’re sharing not just what the colors of dinosaurs were according to scientists, but how they reached those conclusions, and why it matters.
What Color Were Dinosaurs? How Do We Know?
When depicting dinosaurs in art, the creators have to make use of all the latest information available to them at the time, which is one of the reasons that most artists had to simply guess the color of dinosaurs for so long. When all we had to go on were their bones, there was apparently no way to determine exactly what color they were.
In order to determine the color of an ancient dead creature such as a dinosaur, one has to also find organic matter along with the fossilized bones. This type of discovery only first occurred in the 21st century. Jacob Vinthers from the University of Bristol, made a key discovery of melanosomes in fossilized squid ink, which led to the belief that the same melanosomes could also survive in fossilized dinosaur remains.
“You can take ink from a squid you bought down at the fishmonger and put it under an electron microscope, and you see perfect little round balls…And then when you take fossilized ink, it looks exactly the same: perfect little round balls.” The ‘balls’ that Vinther was referring to in this quote were the melanosomes.
For those not so familiar with their biology, melanosomes are organelles that synthesize, store, and transport melanin. The reason they weren’t spotted in dinosaur fossils before is that they were mistaken for a form of bacteria that look very similar in size and scale.
Using an electron microscope, a scientist with the right knowledge can look closer at the hidden pigments and start to understand the world of dinosaur color.
For a long time, scientists had believed that pigment was one of those things that would never survive the fossilization process, hence the early assumption that the true color of the dinosaurs was impossible to determine.
What Vinther demonstrated was firstly that pigment does survive in the form of melanosomes, and that the shape of that pigment also helps determine color. He said:
Other shapes included large, fat melanosomes which indicated that the animal was gray or blue in its pigment, and melanosomes that were long and skinny indicated iridescence. Maybe there would even be a pink dinosaur discovered.
Below is a table of known dinosaur species and their colorings thanks to the study of melanosomes:
Table 1: Dinosaur Species with Known colors.
|Anchiornis||Red head feathers; black and white patterns on wings|
|Sinosauropteryx||Chestnut; red and white stripes on tail|
|Microraptor||Raven-like black plumage|
|Psittacosaurus||Rusty red; darker back; lighter belly|
|Velociraptor||Feathered; iridescent with a metallic sheen|
|Borealopelta Markmitchelli||Gray/brown but with countershaded armor for camouflage|
Why the Color of Dinosaurs Matters
A lot of what people understood and perceived about dinosaurs in the past was based largely on conjecture and assumptions.
There were huge gaps in our knowledge and understanding, such as the very important fact that many well-known species of dinosaurs were actually feathered and more closely related to modern birds rather than scaly and related to lizards. The movie-famous velociraptor was feathered, as was the T-Rex, in part.
Other dinosaurs were scaly armored brutes, such as the Triceratops, but if we know that much, why does color even matter? In fact, learning the colors of dinosaur species is just as important as learning about the true nature of their scaled or feathered skin surface.
How Dinosaurs Lived
As we know from the millions of species still living on Earth, colors matter a great deal in the animal kingdom. Color is used for expression, attraction of mates, camouflage, and also passively as an evolutionary “survival of the fittest” attribute.
Therefore, understanding what color dinosaurs were would also give us greater insight into the way they lived, how they survived, and more.
Different colors might mark the difference between male and female as is true with many bird species still around today. If the dinosaur were a dull color, it might indicate that it blended in well with its surroundings, and was thus an excellent hunter, or a skilled evader of predators.
Color is always so much more than just what something looks like.
Another key importance in determining dinosaur colors is to more deeply understand how ancient dinosaurs link with modern species. We’ve already determined through research that modern birds are more closely related to many dinosaurs than modern lizards are, despite outward appearances.
Understanding coloring might give us ideas on which dinosaurs relate to which modern birds, and how certain bird traits related to color have been passed down through the evolutionary process.
If you want to color your own dinosaurs we have loads of coloring pages here on the site you can click the link here or below to access them. They are all free.
Conclusion: A Colorful Rethinking
What we are learning more and more as we unlock coloring, feathering, and other external features of dinosaurs is that we have to really rethink the “Jurassic Park” Hollywood-style world of giant lizards that we have learned about growing up.
It seems that the dinosaur world was a lot more diverse in its offerings, with many of the “tyrannical lizards” being giant colorful birds that feasted on the large land-dwelling herbivorous reptiles that were also camouflaged.
As more fossils continue to be uncovered, hopefully a look at some additional melanosomes will reveal further color in the Cretaceous spectrum.
Hi, I am Roy Ford a General Studies and English Teacher who has taught all over the world. What started as a fossil collection became a great way to teach, motivate and inspire students of all ages and all over the world about dinosaurs and from that and children’s love of dinosaurs came the site dinosaur facts for kids, a resource for all ages.