US scientists set to reveal the true colour of dinosaurs

A new technique that identifies the hue of ancient birds may help a Yale team with bigger beasts

It is a question that has baffled the greatest scientific minds – and those of the average seven-year-old: what colour were dinosaurs?

Now a dramatic breakthrough in fossil examination has sparked a race to discover an answer that may satisfy the scientific community as well as anxious crayon-wielders. A research team at Yale University believes it has established a technique that can identify the colour of fossilised feathers and fur. Preliminary results suggest that the true colours of dinosaurs may soon be revealed.

A team headed by Professor Derek Briggs, director of Yale's Peabody Museum of Natural History, discovered that tiny fossilised structures previously believed to be the remains of bacteria were in fact carbon deposits called melanosomes, which indicate the colour pattern of modern birds' feathers.

Initially the scientists could identify only black or white bands but further developments now mean they can see the structure, which they know is responsible for iridescence or colour sheen. The colour of the feathers is identifiable from the shape of the structure.

"This is, to our knowledge, the first evidence of preservation of a colour-producing nanostructure in a fossil feather and confirms the potential for determining colour differences in ancient birds and other dinosaurs," the research paper, published this week in the journa Biology Letters, said.

After examining fossilised feathers from Messel in Germany, Professor Briggs and his team say the creature that sported the feather was black with a "strongly lustrous iridescent blue, green or coppery sheen", similar to the modern swift.

"The structures are such that we can be very confident that these feathers were iridescent," Professor Briggs said. "We don't know which bird the feather was from as they have been separated from the skeleton. In the future this won't happen if we think there is interesting feather data. There are feathered dinosaurs, mostly found in China, from the Jurassic and Cretaceous period. It would be astounding to find the colour of these feathers and this is very exciting."

He added that although only dark blue and reddy browns can be identified at the moment, analysing the same deposits in modern birds and butterflies should open the way to identifying yellows, blues and oranges.

Dinosaurs, which date back at least 65 million years, have fascinated the world since their enormous bones were first identified in the 19th century. While great strides have been made in understanding their behaviour, knowing their colour would open the door to information previously thought impossible to gain. Modern animals have evolved colour on their fur or feathers for important survival reasons, such as camouflage and mating, for example.

"Feathers are important for camouflage and sexual display," Professor Briggs said. "So we can learn a lot about behaviour. There's also a possibility that fur colour could be identified, so we may be able to work out the colour of extinct mammals. Now that the technique is known the race is on."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

£37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

£25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

£16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

Day In a Page

The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

They fled war in Syria...

...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

Kelis interview

The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea