Scientists Are Using Fossils to Determine Dinosaurs’ True Colors

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Over the years, paleontologists have developed sophisticated methods for deducing dinosaur anatomy from even the smallest fossil fragments. They’ve rebuilt skeletal systems and discovered information about the musculature and exterior features of long-extinct species. But one key piece of information has always evaded their grasp: dinosaur color.

According to The Atlantic, scientists made their first breakthrough in the mystery of dinosaur color in 2008 when they found melanosomes in a fossilized feather. Melanosomes, the organelles that make the pigment melanin, come in different shapes depending on what color they produce. The scientists began to wonder whether melanosomes found in fossils could provide clues as to what color the dinosaurs really were. 

But it took several years for scientists to put their theory to the test, and many doubted that, after millions of years in the ground, melanosome shapes would be preserved at all. In a study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists finally confirmed that melanosomes found in ancient fossils can provide information about color. 

The study specifically sought to confirm the relationship between melanosome shape and pigmentation in ancient fossils. "By finding traces of the chemical melanin in association with these structures, we’ve basically confirmed that you can use the shapes of the melanosomes themselves to tell what color something was," researcher Caitlin Colleary explained to The Atlantic.

While the study was an early test of a new methodology—meaning it confirmed the efficacy of melanosome studies rather than providing new information about, say, the true color of Tyrannosaurus rex—it’s a huge first step towards determining the colors and patterns of all kinds of extinct species. 

Dinosaur pigmentation isn't researchers' only focus. Paleontologists are also interested in learning about the colors of ancient mammals. As Colleary told The Atlantic, “I’d really like to see the extinct relatives of giraffes, because giraffes have such a distinct color pattern. So it would be really cool to see what those guys look like.”

[h/t: The Atlantic]