Jan
28
2010

Feathered dinosaur shows its true colors

Sinosauropteryx
SinosauropteryxCourtesy Chuang Zhao and Lida Xing
Scientists from China and the United Kingdom say they have found hints of color present in the fossils of both an ancient bird called Confuciusornis and a non-avian dinosaur called Sinosauropteryx. Using an electron microscope the researchers detected differently-shaped organelles called melanosomes in the feathers of each creature. Melanosomes contain melanin which determines color in human hair, animal fur, and feathers, but it's the shape of the melanosomes that determine the shade.

"A ginger-haired person would have more spherical melanosomes, and a black-haired or grey-haired person would have more of the sausage-shaped structures," said Mike Benton, professor of paleontology at the University of Bristol, and leader of the study.

Both shapes were found in the remains of Confuciusornis, which lived during the Early Cretaceous period. In the Sinosauropteryx fossil, which dates back to the same time, light and dark bands visible along its tail were determined to be white and ginger in color when its fossilized melanosomes were viewed under the microscope. The presence of melanosomes also confirms that the turkey-sized dinosaur had actual feathers rather than just shredded connective tissue as some scientists have suggested. The research appears in the latest issue of Nature.

Watch an interview with Professor Benton.

SOURCES
University of Bristol page
BBC story

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