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Dinosaur with Colorful Plumage Discovered

Reconstruction of the plumage color of the Jurassic troodontid Anchiornis huxleyi. [Image courtesy of Michael A. Digiorgio]
Reconstruction of the plumage color of the Jurassic troodontid Anchiornis huxleyi. [Image courtesy of Michael A. Digiorgio]
Jessica Berman

Scientists have long speculated that dinosaurs were a dull brown or mottled gray.  But researchers studying the fossils of an ancient dinosaur say they've found new evidence the creature sported vibrantly colored feathers.  The discovery expands scientists' understanding not only of how some dinosaurs looked but also how they behaved.

US and Chinese Scientists reconstructed the plumage of a 150-million-year-old flightless dinosaur called Anchiornis huxleyi, using an electron microscope and thirty fossilized feathers that once covered the cat-sized creature.

Researchers focused their attention on chemical compounds in the feathers called melanosomes tiny, pigment-producing structures that formed in the feather during the creature's development.  They compared these structures to the melanosomes that determine the color of feathers on living birds, and were then able to figure out the colors of the ancient dinosaur's feathers.
 
Richard Prum, an evolutionary biologist at Yale University in Connecticut, says the melanosomes of the Cretaceous-era dinosaur, whose fossil remains were found in Lianong Province in China, were very well preserved. Prum says reconstructing the plumage of Anchiornis was like painting a picture by numbers.

"There was this moment when I had the pleasure to go back over the data and find out well, patch twenty-two, where is that on the body?  And patch seven where is that color? And fill in the blanks," said Richard Prum.

The result was a mostly gray dinosaur covered from head to toe with vivid plumage.

"The crest was a [light] brown color," he said. "And then what's quite striking is that it has brilliantly white wings with each of the white feathers having a black tip.  And also it had these elongated feathers on its legs, what in some dinosaurs have been called leg wings and the feathers of the legs have the same pattern of a bright white feather with a black tip."

If it were still alive, researchers say Anchiornis huxleyi would be a very striking creature.  Today, they say the dinosaur most resembles a bird called a Spangled Hamburg chicken.  The colorful feathers, says Prum, were probably useful in attracting mates.

Researchers believe they captured the appearance of the flightless dinosaur with ninety percent accuracy.  Prum says researchers plan to use the method to piece together the colors of other feathered dinosaurs.

"This is the first page in a field guide to the extinct feathered dinosaurs," said Prum. "And I fully expect within the next few years this book will get to be quite thick.  This kind of research is doable, and with access to material we should know a lot about the color patterns on the body of a lot of these organisms."

But Prum says it's hard to find enough feathers from a single dinosaur to reconstruct all of the colors of its plumage.  Another team of researchers recently reported on the existence of two pigments from different dinosaurs using the technique developed by Prum and his colleagues.

A study on the appearance of the ancient dinosaur Anchiornis huxleyi is published this week in the journal Science.

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