A meat-eating dinosaur that lived about 125 million years ago was adorned with orange and white rings running along the length of its tail, according to a study that has identified the colour of dinosaurs for the first time.
Fossilised bristles – primitive feathers – on the dinosaur's tail contain microscopic structures or "organelles" that would have contained the pigments which formed the coloured patterns on the tail, scientists have discovered.
The researchers also found evidence of coloration in the fossilised feathers of a bird that lived at about the same time as the dinosaur, which had the same kind of pigment-containing structures in its feathers. Both finds suggest that feathers could have arisen as a way of displaying colours rather than as a way of insulating the body against heat loss, or as an aid to the evolution of gliding and powered flight, the scientists said.
"It's the first time anyone has had evidence of original colour in a [fossilised] feather. We can't say what all the colours were because there are other colouring agents in feathers which may not be in the fossils," said Professor Mike Benton of Bristol University.
The study was carried out with Chinese scientists from the Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology in Beijing on fossils of the carnivorous therapod dinosaur Sinosautropteryx, which had orange and white rings on its tail, and the ancient bird Confuciusornis, which was found to have patches of white, black and orange-brown colouring. The fossils were found in north-eastern China.