Within just the past few years leaps and bounds have been made with regards to learning new information about dinosaurs. Most groundbreaking is probably the discovery of tiny structures preserved in some dinosaur fossil's feathers. These structures are called melanosomes. The shape of a melanosome determines what color the tissue it belongs to is. By looking at the shapes of these melanosomes found on certain well preserved dinosaur fossils and then comparing them to those on a variety of modern bird feathers, scientists can actually determine what color the long extinct animals were!
Since dinosaurs were first discovered by humans color has always been the one thing that we always thought we would never know for sure. Its almost mind-blowing to think anything otherwise. Keep in mind this can only pertain to dinosaurs which had feathers that preserved enough to retain the melanosome structures. If all we have is bones (which is the case for most dinosaur fossils) the color is still anyone's guess.
If you read my first article already you should know that I enjoy illustrating reconstructions of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals. That being said just over a month ago I finished a painting of a strange little dinosaur called Microraptor. Microraptor lived in China about 120 million years ago. It was tiny, only about three feet long, and was a dromaeosaur like Velociraptor and Deinonychus. The thing about Microraptor that makes it interesting, however, is the fact that it had long wing-style feathers (called primary feathers) on both its arms AND its legs. In other words it pretty much had four wings. It is believed that Microraptor couldn't fly but rather was more of a glider or parachuter, using its extra wing feathers to make its body more stable in the air much like a bi-plane to move from tree limb to tree limb or the ground. Below is the painting I created of Microraptor gliding in to catch a sleeping cretacious bird called Confuciousornis. This behavior is inspired by modern day owls that frequently ambush other birds at night.
What does this have to do with determining dinosaur color you ask? Well literally the day of THE DAY OF...LITERALLY me posting this painting I put all my time and sweat into on the internet what do I see on my news feed? A new discovery that determined Microraptor (of all dinosaurs) was not earthy brown (like I spent so much time painting it) but iridescent black or blue. If that's not irony for you I don't know what is. Anybody familiar with the popular internet fad, "rage comics"? Well I made one about this incident.
This discovery is bitter-sweet. Of course I'm happy and excited that we are learning new and interesting things about dinosaurs like this. I just wish I had learned it a few days earlier! In all fairness it should be important to remember that there are probably more than one species of Microraptor. I briefly spoke with Jason Brougham, an Exhibition Preparator at the American Museum of Natural History. He did artwork for the museum on this new discovery. This is what he had to say about it having closely worked with the paleontologists who uncovered it in the first place.
"We did different versions of the animal in life poses. I drew from many refs of living birds and set up my skeletal model in different poses to try to get correct perspectival views. There may be more than one species within genus Microraptor, and different patterns are likely." -Brougham
Microraptor is the fourth (and hopefully not the last) dinosaur who's color has been discovered by scientists so far. The others are Sinosauropteryx, Anchiornis and Archaeopteryx. Below is my illustration of all of them together.
Hopefully more feathered dinosaur colors will be revealed in the near future. Which ones would you like to know the most? Farewell until next time!
Li, Gao, Meng, Clarke, Shawkey, D’Alba, Pei, Ellison, Norell & Vinther. 2012. Reconstruction of Microraptor and the Evolution of Iridescent Plumage. Science http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1213780
Zhang, F.; Kearns, S.L.; Orr, P.J.; Benton, M.J.; Zhou, Z.; Johnson, D.; Xu, X.; and Wang, X. (2010). "Fossilized melanosomes and the colour of Cretaceous dinosaurs and birds". Nature 463 (7284): 1075–1078. doi:10.1038/nature08740. PMID 20107440.
Li, Q.; Gao, K.-Q.; Vinther, J.; Shawkey, M.D.; Clarke, J.A.; D'Alba, L.; Meng, Q.; Briggs, D.E.G. et al (2010). "Plumage color patterns of an extinct dinosaur". Science 327 (5971): 1369–1372. Bibcode 2010Sci...327.1369L. doi:10.1126/science.1186290. PMID 20133521.
R. Carney, et al. 2011. Black Feather Colour in Archaeopteryx. 2011 Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Annual Meeting Abstracts, p