Thursday, June 30, 2011

New X-ray technique reveals traces of color in feathered dinosaurs

Scientists at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory reported today that they have developed new techniques which show chemical traces of pigments in the feathers of 100-million-year-old birds who lived at the same time as dinosaurs.


The pigment, called eumelanin, is what gives color to hair and eyes in most animals, including humans.

The new technique shows features not apparent in the recent discoveries of melanosomes-- pigment producing structures which implied certain coloration patterns. These new findings are based on X-ray evidence of the pigments themselves, not just the pigment-producing structures.

This is exciting news for dinosaur watchers. So much of our identification of modern birds is based on the way they are colored. It’s as if a few pages of our Field Guide to the Dinosaurs suddenly morphed from x-rays to full-color plates.

X-Rays Reveal Patterns in the Plumage of the First Birds (SLAC press release)
X-Rays Illuminate Fossil Pigment (Nature News)

7 comments:

goat89 said...

One wouldn't normally think about the colour of Dinosaurs... but with this new revelation, we can have better visual projections of Dinosaurs of old. Will this discovery influence the colour of Dinosaurs you paint from now on Mr Gurney? Provided they catalogue the colour on the huge amount of Dinosaurs though... ;)

MrCachet said...

I was about to ask the same question, James. I wonder if the cave-men would have used something other than Red Ochre for cave paintings - imagine the possibilities.

Kessie said...

This makes me SO EXCITED!! Are there any dinosaur skin imprints preserved as well as these bird fossils that they could scan?

Also, that picture of the scanned bird fossil kind of makes me sad. It looks even more like just a dead bird, and it's so sad that it's dead.

James Gurney said...

Goat: these findings are only for a very small number of feathered animals that lived at the same time as dinosaurs. It doesn't help us with most of the big-bodied chaps.

Kessie, their are skin impressions of hadrosaurs and other large dinos, but they just show texture. Whether any of the exceptionally preserved "mummy" remains can be traced in this way is yet to be determined.

Mr. Cachet, if only cave men were around to paint them. Only in Dinotopia...

gfvegheads said...

As I understand it, they're not able to extrapolate actual colors - just areas of dark and light. The implications are still exciting, though. And obviously, they're working on refining the technique to be able to detect distinct colors in the future. Woohoo!

Kessie, I had the same thought about dino skin! I think there must be - will have to ask the dino crew here...

Roberto said...

I remember reading somewhere that the stripes of a zebra and the spots of a leopard are not just on the fur, but are actually in the skin. The colorations of reptiles, snakes, amphibians and fish are all quite marvelous, I'm sure Dinosaurs came to the party to show off too!-RQ

David Glenn said...

A friend of mine told me about this. It's so cool that soon we'll know the color of some of the dinosaurs.