Yes, Jurassic Park’s sequels crashed and burned like an asteroid. But you gotta admit—the dinosaurs seemed realistic, right? Maybe then…but after a paper appearing yesterday in Nature, any special effects team bent on a new dino flick should consider throwing some feathers in here and there—with particular attention to their color.
Using scanning electron microscopy, researchers found pigment-bearing structures incased in the proto-feathers of non-avian dinosaur fossils. The structures, called melanosomes, also appear in early bird fossils and are identical to those found in living birds.
Now, for the first time, researchers can begin reconstructing certain aspects of dino color. For example, the flesh-eating Sinosauropteryx probably had a tail sporting stripes alternating between white and chestnut or orange-brown; a crest along its back might have been rufous-hued as well.
The discovery helps quell a debate about whether or not dinosaurs’ pseudo plumes are true precursors to feathers. Some investigators have argued that they’re degraded collagen fibers. But the melanosomes described in the study are located inside the feather-like filaments, indicating that those filaments come from the epidermal layer, like modern feathers.
The study also sheds light on the original function of plumes: Were they used for flight, insulation, or display? “We now know that feathers came before wings, so feathers did not originate as flight structures,” said Mike Benton, a paleontology professor at the University of Bristol who contributed to the findings, in a press release. And given the limited distribution of the simplest feathers in dinos such as Sinosauropteryx, they probably weren’t used at first for thermoregulation, either. So it seems that early feathers were intended for display all the way…which should make the box office happy.