Anyone who paid attention to Jurassic Park’s world-renowned paleontologist Dr Alan Grant (Sam Neill) knows that dinosaurs had feathers, not scales. However, a big question for researchers has always been what colour were they? New research led by the University of Manchester has shown that dinosaurs’ feathers were similar in colour to some human hair– although brown and black feathers were more common than red.
The investigation was looking at the chemical composition of melanin (a general name for a group of naturally occurring pigments). By mapping the metal distribution in feathers from various birds with synchrotron X-ray techniques, the group found that eumelanin and pheomelanin (the variants responsible for black/brown and red/yellow hair colouring respectively) interact differently with calcium, copper, sulphur, and zinc.
The group, led by the University of Manchester’s Professor Roy Wogelius, had previously used similar methods to look at metal distribution within fossils. Although they concluded that the presence of copper in these fossils was evidence of eumelanin, they couldn’t confidently distinguish between the two types of melanin. In their new work they analysed four different types of feathers with very distinct colour patterns, in order to discern a difference between eumelanin and pheomelanin.
By studying how the different metals build up in feathers, the team has been able to build up a general picture of how melanin behaves. The work has provided the basis for an “evidence-based colour palette” which, combined with elemental maps of fossils, will allow researchers to show how the dinosaurs might have looked.
Importantly, the X-ray techniques used were non-destructive meaning paleontologists won’t need to risk the integrity of their collections just to find out what they looked like.
The original paper was published and can be found in Nature.