Old Colors: First Birds, Then Dinosaurs?

By Carl Zimmer | September 1, 2009 12:12 pm

grackle440.jpgQuick shake of the head, rub of the eyes, and back to some science.

In today’s New York Times, please check out my article about the quest for fossilized color. Birds without color would be like Van Goghs without the paint, and yet for 150 year paleontologists have had to resign themselves to drab fossils of birds, offering little idea of what the birds actually looked like. That’s now changed. It turns out that the microscopic bags of pigment that give feathers color (not to mention squid ink color too) are incredibly tough. Scientists have found them in fossilized feathers, and they’ve pretty conclusively demonstrated that these things are not feather-feeding bacteria, despite a superficial similarity. What’s more, the scientists can now even use the pattern of the bags (a k a the melanosomes) to figure out some things about the color of a 47-million-year-old ex-parrot extinct bird. It had the kind of iridescence you might see on a grackle or a brown-headed cowbird.

feathers220.jpgmelanosomes.jpgYou may guess where this is going…There are now lots of dinosaur fossils that have what just about all scientists agree now are feathers. If they’re preserved well enough, you should be able to put them under a microscope and see melanosomes. And if you can make out their patterns…

Stay tuned.

[Images: Grackle via Wikipedia; fossil pictures courtesy of Jacob Vinther]

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, Writing Elsewhere

Comments (14)

  1. Brownian


    You mean we might actually know the colours of dinosaurs?!

    O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!

  2. johnk

    I’d guess that colored plumage or skin color would be accompanied by the evolution of color vision. Is anything known about that?

  3. Max

    Every kid’s dream

  4. Damn, I can’t get access to the paper. But I guess the fossil is kept in Frankfurt, which is where I’m going next month.

    P.S. I think Grrlscientist would appreciate a copy of the paper. Any chance…?

  5. amphiox

    #2: I don’t think there would have been any need. It’s pretty likely that the dinosaurs had tetrachromatic color vision from the very beginning. Tetrachromatic vision was probably the primitive condition for stem amniotes. (And, in fact, I think there are some fish with up to 7 different opsin genes)

    Mammals are the exception. A hundred million years or so of nocturnal life resulted in the loss of 2/4 opsin genes, while certain primates secondarily recovered trichromatic color vision later thanks to gene duplications.

  6. DD

    Many other organisms have transparent tissues, some (eg. fish) become almost invisible. Land animals seem exceptional that only the eye lens and fingernail/claw/scale/feather base are transparent. Any idea why? UV damage?

  7. This is pretty cool. The colour assumptions that artists have been using since Owen’s day seem to be based mostly based on the assumption of a camouflage adaptation, neglecting such goodies as sexual selection or predator distraction, etc, etc.

    I have always loved your sense of humor, too, Carl. Slipping in a Monty Python reference. Good.

  8. John Monfries

    Just fascinating – it’s this kind of thing that keeps me coming back to your blog.

    Look out for a “”Walking with Dinosaurs” using the real colours in another five years.

    Kenneth Branagh saying “…and now we have the Norwegianbluosaurus. You can admire its beautiful plumage”.

  9. me

    “It’s not dead, it’s just dormant due to the lack of ambient heat.”

  10. We linked to your article from our Facebook group on Darwin – where we have 250,000 members celebrating the 150th anniversary of the publication of “Origin…”

    It was a great piece – thank you.

    Founder, Darwin150
    On our way to 1 million, help us get there

  11. Jurrasic Park – Now in Real Colours!


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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