January 27th

2010 – Sinosauropteryx has stripes

On this day in dinosaurs, we look back on the discovery of Cretaceous stripes. Determining how dinosaurs looked in life has always been one of the most elusive questions in paleontology. Fossilized pigments in breathtaking feathered dinosaur specimens from China revealed the colors of Mesozoic plumage for the first time. But dino plumage isn’t just long flight feathers–dinosaurs had quills, fluff, and fuzz. Feathers seem to have evolved for insulation first and then were modified later to allow flight to occur.

The History Blog
The History Blog

One of these fuzzy fellows was Sinosauropteryx, whose long tail was adorned with light and dark bands. The fossil’s coloration is visible even to the naked eye, but a team of paleontologists led by Michael Benton from the University of Bristol, and Zhonghe Zhou from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing studied Sinosauropteryx in more detail.

They found two types of melanosomes (pigment-carrying cells) on the little dinosaur: eumelanosomes which are shaped like sausages and represent black pigment in today’s animal kingdom, and sphere-like phaeomelanosomes which produce a ruddy red coloration. The animal’s tail appears to have orange and white stripes and resembles that of a modern ring-tailed lemur.

While some of the colors may have degraded over time and it’s unlikely we’ll ever be entirely certain of the colors that may have been present in life, it’s reasonable to imagine Sinosauropteryx showing off its banded tail for potential mates 100 million years ago.

Share your favorite feathered fossil photos with us on Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #TDIDinos.