Julia Clarke and her colleagues discovered the color of feathers from an extinct bird, raising hopes of someday determining the true colors of dinosaur feathers.

Julia Clarke and her colleagues discovered the color of feathers from an extinct bird, raising hopes of someday determining the true colors of dinosaur feathers.

For much of the 20th century, the popular view of dinosaurs was that of big, drab, bare skinned lizards. But new evidence from the past couple of decades has radically altered that view. It’s now clear that some, if not many, dinosaurs had feathers and downy fuzz like birds. Unfortunately, fossil feathers don’t preserve their original color.

Or do they? Researchers have developed a method for determining the color of feathers from an extinct bird using fossilized remains. In a new paper in the journal Biology Letters, they apply the technique to a 47 million year old fossil of an extinct bird. As reported in the New York Times, they determined that the bird’s feathers had a “dark, iridescent sheen found on starlings and other living birds.”

“I really do think we are moving from dinosaurs in black and white to dinosaurs in Technicolor,” said Julia Clarke, paleontologist at the University of Texas at Austin’s Jackson School of Geosciences (as quoted by the New York Times).

The scientists examined microscopic structures in the fossils called melanosomes. In life, these are the molecules that give feathers their colors. The shape, quantity and organization of melanosomes determine the color. By comparing the fossil melanosomes to those in living birds, the scientists can make educated guesses about the original colors of extinct birds. And since birds are cousins to dinosaurs, the method could work for them too.

Jakob Vinther, a graduate student at Yale University and the study’s lead author, began developing the technique after observing microscopic spheres in fossil squid that he interpreted as the melanosomes responsible for color in squid ink.

Paleontologists are excited by the possible applications of the new technique. The 21st century image dinosaurs might be more like big, brightly colored parrots, flaming cardinals or florid peacocks.

by Marc Airhart

For more information about the Jackson School contact J.B. Bird atjbird@jsg.utexas.edu, 512-232-9623.