Feathers Preserved In Amber Give Scientists A More Colorful View Of Dinos

Sep 15, 2011
Originally published on September 15, 2011 3:12 pm

For most of us, the idea of dinosaurs covered in feathers is still something we're getting used to. It's the same with the idea that they weren't olive-colored creatures, but instead were imbued in a wide array of pigments.

Today, brings news that thumbnail-sized feathers found preserved in amber are telling scientists some new things about these glorious creatures. First, it opens a window — as old as 85 million years — into the evolution of their feathers and secondly it gives scientists a better idea of what they looked like.

The Atlantic's Hans Villarica says that in a new report out in the current issue of Science, researchers say the feathers found in a Late Cretaceous site in Canada show feathers "from early-stage, single filament protofeathers to much more complex structures associated with modern diving birds."

That's interesting, but the part of the find that captures our imagination is this:

After analyzing the preserved pigment cells, the authors add that these feathered creatures may have also had a range of transparent, mottled, and diffused colors, similar to birds today.

So what does that mean?

The New York Times spoke to Mark A. Norell, a dinosaur paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, who said evidence is mounting that dinosaurs had feathers throughout their evolution — from 250 million years ago to 65 million years ago. Now, "we are filling in the color."

So, the Times asked him, why is still common perception that dinos are drab?

...Dr. Norell said it probably arose from their association with crocodiles, their closest living reptilian relatives.

But he said that was fast changing, citing several colorful examples from recent research. In China, Confuciusornis and a few non-avian dinosaurs appeared to have had ruddy feathers; Sinosauropteryx, a reddish banded tail; and Anchiornis probably resembled a woodpecker, with a black body, banded wings and reddish head comb.

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