January 28, 2010 in Nation/World

Dinosaur research finds first color clue

Cellular signs point to red tail feathers
Seth Borenstein Associated Press
 

WASHINGTON – Scientists have for the first time confirmed color in a dinosaur. Don’t think purple Barney, but reddish-orange Conan O’Brien.

The first solid proof of pigmentation has been spotted in the fossilized tail feathers of a smallish meat-eating dinosaur found in China and named Sinosauropteryx. The creature seems to have russet colored rings, according to a paper published online Wednesday in the journal Nature.

That 125 million-year-old tail has the same internal cellular coloring agents as the hair of a red-haired person, said study lead author Mike Benton, a professor of paleontology at the University of Bristol in England. And the same finding provides what some outside experts say is even more conclusive evidence that some dinosaurs had feathers, further linking them to birds.

Benton and his colleagues didn’t see the reddish color itself. Using an electron microscope, they spotted the specific cellular signs of the color. An earlier study by another group of researchers and Benton’s team found similar cellular color hints in prehistoric bird feathers.

Drawings of dinosaurs show them in all sorts of hues, usually duller Earth tones such as brown and gray, but scientists have only speculated on their coloring. As their connection to birds came to light, so did the idea of brighter colors. But until now, there was no proof of any coloring.

Famed dinosaur expert Paul Sereno at the University of Chicago, who wasn’t part of Benton’s team, called it a “landmark paper” that gives us “a sneak peek at how they might have appeared when alive.”

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