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Colors of a feathered dinosaur

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

Ever tried to draw a dinosaur? What colors would you choose? The only limits are your imagination. Although paleontologists can use fossils to tell us how dinosaurs were built, bones can't tell us about what the dinosaurs looked like on the surface….Or can they?

In a new study, scientists have reconstructed the likely coloring of the dinosaur, Anchiornis huxleyi, using magnified images of fossil feathers.

This two-legged dinosaur from the Late Jurassic period (between roughly 160 and 150 million years ago) appears to have had a dark grey or black body and wings with long white feathers, fringed in black. Its head probably had rusty speckles and sported a long, rusty brown mohawk, the scientists report.

The fossil specimen of Anchiornis huxleyi from which the first color patterns of an extinct dinosaur were made.
[Image courtesy of Jay Vinther/Peking Museum of Natural History]

Quanguo Li of the Beijing Museum of Natural History and colleagues analyzed super-up-close images—taken with a machine called a scanning electron microscope—of the partial skeleton of an Anchiornis huxleyi specimen that was discovered recently in China.

The images revealed a variety of tiny structures called melanosomes, which contain the pigment melanin. In modern-day organisms, melanosomes that produce black and gray colors are generally long and narrow, whereas those that produce rusty red and brown colors are short and wide.

The authors analyzed the shape and density of the fossil melanosomes and compared them with that of modern bird feathers to determine the coloration of Anchiornis huxleyi.

The plumage color pattern is similar to that of some living birds, including domesticated water fowl, according to the authors. This research is being published online by the journal Science at the Science Express Web site on 4 February.