Why did we think dinosaurs were drab?
For most of the time humanity has pictured dinosaurs, we’ve imagined them as quite dull. This inherent expectation of drab coloration makes Anchiornis huxleyi and the other feathered dinosaurs we’ve discussed recently so startling. But if dinosaurs are related to brightly colored birds and reptiles which can sport quite a variety of colors, why did we think they were so monochromatic in the first place?
The answer seems rooted in our mammalian bias. Humans and other great apes share full color vision–something that most mammals cannot manage. Think of today’s big mammals–elephants, rhinos, bison, water buffalo, wildebeest, bears. Their hide is not fancy. Even giraffes and zebras are patterned, rather than frilly like birds of paradise or geckos. Because mammalian herbivores and predators don’t see in full color, there’s no need for bright accents or mating coloration. But even crocodilians, komodo dragons, monitor lizards, and turtles (the biggest reptiles alive today) are not decoratively dressed. So it’s not surprise that early paleontologists, artists, and the public didn’t imagine dinosaurs as vivid creatures.
Today’s artists and animators are not afraid to give dinosaurs outlandish coloration. After unlocking their kinship to birds, and knowing that their bright feathers indicates they must have seen in color, it’s more appropriate for us to understand dinosaurs as having rich vision. They perceived their Mesozoic wonderland in detail and our imaginations must now turn to a broader spectrum of colors when we picture our favorite prehistoric beasts.