What colour were the dinosaurs?

One of the greatest discoveries in the history of evolution research was a smallish fossilized dinosaur called archaeopteryx. It had your basic body; it appeared to have wings.

And it absolutely had feathers.

A link – nay, indeed, a missing link – between dinosaurs and birds. An open door to the thrilling idea that ducks on the pond, pigeons on the sidewalk and hawks circling in the sky all had distant dinosaur ancestors.

New research is beginning to reveal an exciting new aspect of ancient dinosaur feathers – their colours.

“It all started back in the 80s,” said Ryan Carney, a graduate researcher at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.

“People had found small structures in these fossils of feathers that were thought to be fossil bacteria.”

But then, seven years ago, a Yale University student named Jakob Pinther revealed these were actually ancient pigment structures. They generate a substance called melanin – the main pigment responsible for colouration throughout the animal kingdom.

“He was able to show that these structures are associated with the dark bands of the feathers, and not the light,” Carney explained to Yahoo Canada.

“That sort of kicked off this new science of being able to reconstruct colours.”

In other words, while life on Earth has changed enormously in the 65 million years since the dinosaurs disappeared, the mechanism for colouring life forms hasn’t changed a bit.

“In bird feathers, the size and shape of these structures are very tightly correlated with the colours they impart,” Carney said.

“The more hot dog-shaped ones are black and gray, and the more meatball-shaped ones are sort of browns.”

Working together, Carney and Pinther found a code for iridescence. They also determined that one little dinosaur they’d been studying had a crest that was the prehistoric equivalent of a bright red Mohawk!

“The punk rocker in me really liked that,” an enthusiastic Carney said.

And colour’s not the only thing that melanin gave dinosaurs. Carney believes it actually helped them get off the ground.

“Just by virtue of that melanin being in that archaeopteryx feather, it would have strengthened it, and therefore would have had some aerodynamic advantages during this early evolutionary stage of dinosaur flight.”

The similarities are strong, despite the eons and oceans of time that have elapsed. Carney now sees clues in the past which shed a new, revealing light on the present.

“We have a much richer understanding now of the evolution of these animals, and these structures.” he noted.

“We first thoughts feathers are what define a bird, and were evolved for flight. We know now that isn’t true. Feathers initially probably evolved for thermal regulation, and then potentially for display.

“And eventually, they were co-opted for flight.”