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What Color Is My Pawpawsaurus?
August 11, 2009 5:48 PM   Subscribe

Dinosaur coloration has always been a source of wild speculation. Artistic renders have ranged from the conservative (battleship grey, lizard green) to the flamboyant, but all guesses appeared equally valid. While there are some wonderfully preserved examples of dinosaur skin texture, fossils have remained stubbornly monochromatic… until now.

Scientists at Yale have hit upon a line of inquiry that may solve the puzzle [article with embedded YouTube video]. As ancient ancestors to birds, some dinosaurs were feathered: velociraptor, for example, is now known to have been fully plumaged, and many other dinosaurs were patterned with "dinofuzz". Feathers contain melanin; different sizes and shapes of fossilised melanosomes, revealed under electron microscopes, indicate different colors. So far scientists working in the field have been able to detect red, black, and brown in fossil feathers, with more colors almost certainly on the way.

(The title for this post was aided by the excellent DinoDictionary; references from the DinoWiki and the University of Bristol's DinoBase also contributed.)
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul (62 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
So when Steven Spielberg decides to go all "Star Wars Special Edition" on Jurassic Park, we know what's going to happen.
posted by micketymoc at 5:53 PM on August 11, 2009 [4 favorites]


He is going to put guns into the dinosaurs' hands, maybe?
posted by Mister_A at 6:03 PM on August 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Walky-talkies, duh.
posted by Sys Rq at 6:10 PM on August 11, 2009 [6 favorites]


T-Rex will shoot first.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:13 PM on August 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


With what?
posted by brundlefly at 6:15 PM on August 11, 2009


Sam the Eagle now seems that much more scarier.
posted by jabberjaw at 6:17 PM on August 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Tiny bow and arrow.
posted by Darth Fedor at 6:18 PM on August 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


velociraptor, for example, is now known to have been fully plumaged

Remarkable dinosaur, the velociraptor, innit? Beautiful plumage!
posted by scalefree at 6:23 PM on August 11, 2009 [19 favorites]


"I told you, Greedo, I don't have the money with me"

"RAWR RAWR RAWR GRWAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA OOOOOOOOOOOOO RAWR"
posted by espire at 6:24 PM on August 11, 2009 [4 favorites]


Usually I'm not all that interested in dinosaur-related things any more, probably as a result of too much marketing of same in recent years. But this scores pretty high on the neat-o-meter.

I have a funny feeling that while many scientists were discussing the reasons why the actual colour of dinosaurs could probably never be conclusively determined, these scientists were busy inventing ways to do that. Not that their results are conclusive yet, but they do seem to be on the right track.
posted by FishBike at 6:24 PM on August 11, 2009


So, now that racism is over we're looking to the past to judge individuals based on their skin color.
posted by qvantamon at 6:27 PM on August 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


And they were all pining for the Norwegian fjords; that's why we have so much oil over here.
posted by Dumsnill at 6:29 PM on August 11, 2009


And OK, "fuzz"... colors... If it turns out there were actual, real, purple fuzzy dinosaurs, my world view is crushed.
posted by qvantamon at 6:29 PM on August 11, 2009 [11 favorites]


all guesses appeared equally valid.

In that case, my vote is for clear, but only after I trademark the name "Crystalsaurus".
posted by DU at 6:42 PM on August 11, 2009


Also, if velociraptors were plumaged, then what does that do to the "birds are descendants of dinosaurs" theory? Is there any reason birds can't just BE dinosaurs?
posted by DU at 6:45 PM on August 11, 2009


Feathers? I always knew Dinosaurs were a bunch of trannies. Tyrant Queen of Lizards more likely.
posted by PenDevil at 6:49 PM on August 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


Dinosaurs had teeth and birds don't.
posted by localroger at 6:51 PM on August 11, 2009


Tiny bow and arrow.

Yeah, the undersized arms weren't so bad against a Greek phalanx in teeth range but when Jeebus invented the musket it was pretty much over for T. Rex.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 6:53 PM on August 11, 2009 [4 favorites]


I doubt Jeebus was spending enough on Research to earn the required precursors for muskets before T. Rex.
posted by DU at 6:56 PM on August 11, 2009 [3 favorites]


DU - Also, if velociraptors were plumaged, then what does that do to the "birds are descendants of dinosaurs" theory? Is there any reason birds can't just BE dinosaurs?

This is like asking whether Pluto is a planet
posted by crayz at 6:59 PM on August 11, 2009


Pluto is a dinosaur.
posted by DU at 7:00 PM on August 11, 2009


He certainly looked too weird for a dog.
posted by qvantamon at 7:01 PM on August 11, 2009 [3 favorites]




Scroll down on the "dinofuzz" link to learn How to Deflesh a Pig Skull.
posted by T.D. Strange at 7:06 PM on August 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


There was a pretty sweet exhibit at the Field Museum in Chicago a while back. The thing that struck me the most was about triceratops - it's highly unlikely those horns were used for combat - the skin covering them would have been too thin. The dinos would have bled to death. It's more likely that they were 'air conditioners' to cool the blood over such a large surface area.
posted by georg_cantor at 7:21 PM on August 11, 2009


wow...this is pretty neat...i love when they figure out how to get more information out of old artifacts...i remember a show from a few years back, i think it was called 'the shape of life', where they explained how they figured out that the first land animals weren't lungfish of something similarly 'advanced', but rather...spiders. what they did was take very early land plant fossils (ferns and such, also contemporary floating seaweeds), and dunked them in ACID. the acid ate away all the inorganic material and left the original plants behind. (!!!) (they looked like the leaves you see at the bottom of lakes, all half-rotten and transparent)...amongst the leaves they found lots of spider parts...
posted by sexyrobot at 7:23 PM on August 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


There was a great interview with Richard Prum (the guy behind this research) on the Skeptics Guide to the Universe (June 18th, 2009) that is well worth a listen.
posted by Midnight Rambler at 7:36 PM on August 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


So when Steven Spielberg decides to go all "Star Wars Special Edition" on Jurassic Park, we know what's going to happen.

I'll forgive anything as long as the dinosaurs are on dirtbikes.
posted by Ritchie at 7:41 PM on August 11, 2009 [3 favorites]


Scroll down on the "dinofuzz" link to learn How to Deflesh a Pig Skull.

Someone needs to tell that guy about insects.

or maybe the metafilter "how to dispose of a body" permafavorite could help...
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 7:45 PM on August 11, 2009


The real reason dinosaurs (which actually were around 6000 years ago, like some creationists say) are extinct are twofold.

1. They were difficult to domesticate. Barbed wire and electric fencing came too late to save them.

2. They were damn good eating. T-Rex? Tasted like chicken, and man, look at those legs and thighs! Brontosaurus? Prime rib, tons of it. Stegosarus? Mashed potatoes and gravy, with butter. NONE of them tasted like brussel sprouts or brocolli...

First time a caveman brought one down and started chewing on it - they was doom'ed.

/sarc, as if you couldn't tell.
posted by JB71 at 7:46 PM on August 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Dinosaurs had teeth and birds don't.

You've obviously never eaten chicken.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 8:00 PM on August 11, 2009


2. They were damn good eating. T-Rex? Tasted like chicken, and man, look at those legs and thighs! Brontosaurus? Prime rib, tons of it.

Tell me about it! It's enough to make your car tip over at the drive-thru.
posted by sexyrobot at 8:14 PM on August 11, 2009 [10 favorites]


dunked them in ACID. the acid ate away all the inorganic material and left the original plants behind. (!!!)

I learned recently that palynologists do basically the same thing when dealing with fossils— eat away all the rock with hydrofluoric acid, leaving the ancient pollen grains behind.
posted by hattifattener at 8:52 PM on August 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


I learned recently that palynologists do basically the same thing when dealing with fossils—

for a minute there i thought you just really didn't know how tho spell paleontology ;) ...never heard of Palynology until now...cool field! yeah, it's the same thing, just with bigger stuff...it was wild...the leaves were still green (!)
posted by sexyrobot at 9:07 PM on August 11, 2009


Mister_A: He is going to put guns into the dinosaurs' hands, maybe?

Megalodons with frickin' laser beams!
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:31 PM on August 11, 2009


The flesh-eaters all went to dinosaur Valhalla, where they rule as angry, gnashing gods over their prey, a flailing, bloody orgy of feasting day in and day out.¹

The leaf-eaters spotted the asteriod decades before it hit the earth, thanks to their advanced defensive astronomy force. They went underground, to several huge bunkers, thinking to be safe. Which, thankfully, they were. Unfortunately, the meteor strike triggered a massive heat wave and they cooked to death in the bowels of the earth, huddling deep in the mines seeking the cold of the depths. Fortunately, thousands of years later, we found them under the oil rigs! Thank you god!

The water-swimmers lucked out. They were ejected with most of the rest of the earth's water into the hydrosphere, a water "lense" that encircled the earth. Which is what gave the earth the environment that allowed the very early humans live such long lives — Methuselah, etc. So, like, over their heads was this water-sphere, with Pleosaurs and stuff swimming around in it. Cool, hey? I told you this bible shit was cool, didn't I?

And then God made it rain and all that, and it all fell back down to earth. Pleosaurs smashing into towns! Floods! Bowls of petunias! Noah builds himself a big-ass ark and ends up hauling ass to save all the good stuff and shit. And you know how rain is cold? Well, the earth cools off from the heat wave and the water became glaciers and ice caps, and stuff. Isn't that awesome?

And now, like, we made the mistake of using up all the dinosaur oil too fast, and so we've put all their carbon back in the air and now it's more like what weather they were used to. So that might be a problem, because of the water melting and the Jurassic Park and stuff, right?

And that's how we go where we are today. It's all in the bible.

¹No, just joking. They went to hell, like all bad things.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:31 PM on August 11, 2009 [4 favorites]


DU: Is there any reason birds can't just BE dinosaurs?

Is there any reason humans can't just BE monkeys?
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:33 PM on August 11, 2009 [4 favorites]


Biggest difference between birds and reptiles seems to be metabolism. Which is to say, having the energy capacity to fly. Lizards are lazy budgies!
posted by five fresh fish at 9:43 PM on August 11, 2009



DU: Is there any reason birds can't just BE dinosaurs?

Is there any reason humans can't just BE monkeys?


If it doesn't have a tail, it's not a monkey,

Even if it has a monkey kinda shape...

posted by Omission at 9:50 PM on August 11, 2009


how the HELL is that cucumber holding up those binoculars?
posted by sexyrobot at 9:56 PM on August 11, 2009


Biggest difference between birds and reptiles seems to be metabolism. Which is to say, having the energy capacity to fly. Lizards are lazy budgies!
Is that because they're too lazy to grow wings, or too lazy to use them if they had 'em?
posted by dg at 10:05 PM on August 11, 2009


"Dinosaurs had teeth and birds don't."

"You've obviously never eaten chicken."

Chicken has obviously never eaten you.
posted by kyrademon at 11:02 PM on August 11, 2009




Is there any reason humans can't just BE monkeys?

I can't tell if this is supposed to be mocking me or supporting me.

Camofrog's link is interesting, but seems to waffle between the two poles I set out: "descended from" vs "are". Although exactly what that difference means, if anything, I dunno.
posted by DU at 5:06 AM on August 12, 2009


> Also, if velociraptors were plumaged, then what does that do to the "birds are descendants of dinosaurs" theory? Is there any reason birds can't just BE dinosaurs?

In modern taxonomical parlance, yes birds are dinosaurs, just as humans are monkeys. That's just science-talk, however, and doesn't make a lot of sense in the way language generally used.
If you go around referring to chimpanzees as monkeys, you will be politely corrected every five minutes. If you insist that the parrot on your shoulder is a dinosaur, you will soon find that people avoid eye-contact and back away slowly.

In scientific language, there is no difference between "descended from" and "are". All descendents of the first monkeys are monkeys; some of them are also apes; some of those are also human. In common usage, by contrast, the word "monkey" can refer to any monkey except the ones in that group that we have decided should be called apes. This makes no taxonomical sense, but that's how it goes. In our normal day to day language, "dinosaur" means "a member of the superorder Dinosauria but really I mean the big scary ones, not birds, because those are no fun".
posted by nowonmai at 5:28 AM on August 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


In scientific language, there is no difference between "descended from" and "are".

Sure there is, unless you consider yourself to be a methane-breathing bacterium.

I guess my question is this: Take (some species of) today's birds and put them into Age of Dinosaurs. Now send a biologist, but not one aware of today's distinction between dinosaurs and birds (if any), back there. How are they going to classify things? Are the birds we sent back going to emerge as a definable group?
posted by DU at 5:57 AM on August 12, 2009


Hollow bones and beaks are the big markers for birds... and animals with these traits have evolved to fill every niche that dinosaurs once filled, at some point or other in the history of the planet, from megafauna predators and herbivores to aquatic fish-eaters.

They are as distinct from the dinosaurs as mammals are from synapsids - which is to say, they're not. They're just a remaining offshoot of a much larger group of animals that died out except for one line, and then re-evolved into an abundance of species.

Birds are unlikely to have evolved from sauropods, and sauropods have no living descendants. This is true for almost all species of dinosaur, except the one that evolved into the first bird... and the bird and its descendants were adaptable enough to survive, while all other dinosaur lines died out. So, there is a demarcation between "bird" and "dinosaur" that doesn't exist between "budgie" and "ostrich," but explaining what that is would involve three different taxonomists screaming at each other, so, yeah, birds are dinosaurs... but dinosaurs are not birds.
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:27 AM on August 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


One of the confusions here is that class Aves is considerably lower on the taxonomic tree than the superorder of dinosaurs. Birds are a subcategory of a subcategory of dinosaurs. And while feathered raptors have been stealing all the headlines, there are at least three other taxonomic orders of dinosaurs that are distant relations. It's just that no one seems to want to talk about poor neglected brachiosaurus, or stegosaurus in the midst of the debate about the color of T. Rex's feathers. So, Aves ∈ Theropoda ∈ Dinosaurs. (∈ signifying "member of")

Saying that human beings a member of the category "monkey" is a problem because "monkey" is a lay term. But, Humans ∈ Apes ∈ Old-World Primates. If you took the common ancestor of humans, chimps and baboons out of the past with a time machine and put it in a zoo, it would be in the monkey house and my niece would call it a monkey.

At least one of the problems with a phrase like "birds are dinosaurs" is that the verb "to be" in English is ambiguous and overloaded, so it's better to explicitly say, "birds are a subcategory of dinosaurs."
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:25 AM on August 12, 2009


> I guess my question is this: Take (some species of) today's birds and put them into Age of Dinosaurs. Now send a biologist, but not one aware of today's distinction between dinosaurs and birds (if any), back there. How are they going to classify things? Are the birds we sent back going to emerge as a definable group?

Birds are a class of theropod dinosaurs, more closely related to each other than to anything that isn't a bird. This is supported by analysis of skeletal structure, and more recently by protein sequencing. That wouldn't be changed in your time machine fantasy. This might help.
posted by nowonmai at 7:41 AM on August 12, 2009


DU: I guess my question is this: Take (some species of) today's birds and put them into Age of Dinosaurs. Now send a biologist, but not one aware of today's distinction between dinosaurs and birds (if any), back there. How are they going to classify things? Are the birds we sent back going to emerge as a definable group?

Birds would likely emerge as a unique taxon within a large and highly-diverse superfamily.

Well, probably the ordering would go something like this:
Reptiles
Dinosaurs (including beaked and armored dinosaurs)
"Saurischia" (although probably with a different name)
Theropods (including raptors and T. Rex)
Aves
Robins

The time-traveling biologist arguably could have the advantage of molecular biology as a tool to explore these relationships. And it seems likely given recent finds that primitive birds predated the KT event and coexisted with other dinosaur families.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:42 AM on August 12, 2009


Well, for starters, we don't breathe methane. Getting more to the heart of the matter, by trying to trace back our lineage to bacteria, you get into difficult territory, because lineage wasn't linear. Horizontal gene transfer matters much more to single-celled organisms, plus there's the whole issue of Endosymbiosis, which makes classification or cladistics more difficult.

A simpler analogy would be to ask yourself, "are you a vertebrate?" Or "are you a mammal?" For some reason, most people have no trouble with those ones. We have all the common properties of mammals, so we're mammals. That also means that we're descended from some ancestor common to all mammals. Hence, "no difference between 'descended from' and 'are'".

People are touchy about monkeys and apes. You can look up matters yourself if you like, but most biologists I talk to consider humans to be apes. There's two reasons for this. One is, there's no reasonable definition of "ape" that includes apes, doesn't include humans, and doesn't have the phrase "non-human primate" in it. That is, you can't exclude humans from apes without doing it artificially. Two, humans and chimps are more closely related than say, chimps and gorillas. How do you say that chimps and gorillas are apes, but humans aren't?
posted by Humanzee at 7:49 AM on August 12, 2009 [2 favorites]


DU: I can't tell if this is supposed to be mocking me or supporting me.

I was being rather flippant, just for the sheer fun of it; but my real point has been explained quite well by now, so...what those folks (including the eponysterical Humanzee) said.
posted by Greg_Ace at 8:41 AM on August 12, 2009


...humans and chimps are more closely related than say, chimps and gorillas. How do you say that chimps and gorillas are apes, but humans aren't?

Nice try, Humanzee, but it won't work this time—your name gave away your game. You should probably use a sock puppet account the next time you try to muddy these waters with your fiendish simian prevarications. (Might I suggest the name "Just Your Average Everyday Human Being"?)
posted by Atom Eyes at 10:09 AM on August 12, 2009


The other side of the debate that Slap*Happy brings up - that birds did not evolve from dinosaurs - is worth reading into. Oregon State University's John Ruben is one of group of scientists who argue that bird respiration is so unique that it is highly unlikely their body structure evolved from dinosaurs. Bird thighs do not move, and this keeps their air sacs from collapsing during inhalation. Ruben argues this suggests a parallel evolution of birds and dinosaurs. As to feathers, other work by Alan Feduccia and others has found that the tissue structures other scientists hype as protofeathers were actually fibrous skin networks.

See, however, the hollow-boned Aerosteon.

Simply fascinating.
posted by nicodine at 10:13 AM on August 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Is that because they're too lazy to grow wings, or too lazy to use them if they had 'em?

If they had them, I suspect they wouldn't be able to fly: their metabolism wouldn't allow them to produce enough energy for flight. I'm thinking the big evolutionary jump isn't the wings, it's the metabolism: once you've got the metabolism, all sorts of interesting non-lizardy things become possible, many of them involving developing better ways of capturing energy for the new, higher metabolism.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:25 AM on August 12, 2009


All PFMA speculation, of course, based on incomplete knowledge. Please take it all with the same grain of salt as you used for the dinosaur Valhalla.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:29 AM on August 12, 2009


Evolutionary biology is filled with feedback loops where a shift in one phenotype can enable shifts in different phenotypes.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:39 AM on August 12, 2009


Artist's rendition of colorful feathered Raptor.

(JOY TO THE WOORRRRLD THE LORRD HAS COOOOOOOME!)
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:56 AM on August 12, 2009 [3 favorites]


I read an article years ago, in probably the early- to mid-'90's, wherein a paleontologist (sadly, I don't remember the name) supposed that proto-birds evolved, and the dinosaurs evolved from them. His shorthand for it was the "Birds Came First" theory. Don't know if he ever got very far with it.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 4:02 PM on August 12, 2009


This reminds me - what's Mary H. Schweitzer been up to, lately?
posted by Lesser Shrew at 5:47 PM on August 12, 2009


Is there any reason birds can't just BE dinosaurs?

Gregory S. Paul argues very convincingly in Predatory Dinosaurs of the World and Dinosaurs of the Air that velociraptors and some other dinosaurs were the secondarily flightless descendants of birds. He shows (through exceptionally beautiful illustrations) that many of the unusual features of velociraptors and the like—long belly ribs, odd wrist architecture, etc.—are best explained as inherited baggage from flying ancestors.

So not only are birds dinosaurs, but several of what you have historically considered dinosaurs may in fact be birds.
posted by Ptrin at 7:22 PM on August 12, 2009 [3 favorites]


Totally off-topic, but: threads like this one make me glad I finally coughed up the $5.
posted by vanar sena at 11:14 AM on August 14, 2009


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