With every new find, dinosaurs look less like the slow dumb swamp-dwellers Victorians imagined and more like Jurassic Park. Thanks to well-preserved fossils, we know that “Sinosauropteryx, a small carnivorous dinosaur that lived during the early Cretaceous (okay, not Jurassic)… [is an] example of countershading in dinosaurs, a mix of dark and light body coloring.”
This turkey-sized dino had to evade other predators as well as hunt for its own meals. A coat of rusty brown feathers on its back, turning lighter on its sides, and a mask across its eyes provided a camouflage pattern animals still use today. How scientists figure this out is neat:
In recent years, scientists have been able to isolate and study melanosomes, which create the pigment melanin, preserved in fossilized feathers. These chemicals offer clues to what ancient animals looked like in life. ‘When feathers are preserved, that’s because there’s melanin in there.’ nationalgeographic.com
Comparing the distribution of color on the dinosaur to modern animals lets us guess what sort of habitat it lived in – bright open plain or shaded forest.
We need more examples to be sure the fossil feathers are close to their original position on the animal, and chemical testing would confirm some of the findings. But that will come.
It’s sad to realize such fascinating creatures are gone forever, but at least one won’t run up and rip my kneecap off.
Thanks to Jakob Vinther and Fiann Smithwick of the University of Bristol for their study published in Current Biology.