What Color is Your Dinosaur?

We know what dinosaurs look like because we watch movies such as “Jurassic World.”  At least, we think we know.  Modern computer-generated imagery makes us believe we are looking at actual photographs and video footage.  But how do scientists – and artists – know what these extinct animals really looked like?

From excavated bones and scar tissue, scientists can determine a dinosaur’s overall form and musculature.  From fossilized impressions of the animal’s skin, scientists can determine whether the animal had smooth or scaly skin, armor or feathers.

The single most difficult feature to uncover is the actual color of the dinosaur.  Amazingly, new technologies are helping scientists to determine this as well.

Melanosomes are the components of a cell that make pigment.  They determine the color of skin, hair and feathers in modern animals.  Not only do specific melasonomes produce different colors, they also have different chemical structures.

Eumelanin is the melanosome that produces black or brown, depending on its concentration.  An international team of scientists has been able to find direct chemical evidence of eumelanin pigment in fossils from the Jurassic period.  They used an Agilent HPLC, Agilent TOF LC/MS and Agilent GC for their work.

In similar research, scientists in New Zealand and the UK have been able to detect the unique color-producing chemicals in extinct moa eggs.  They used an Agilent diode array spectrophotometer in their pigment analysis.  And German scientists have found chemical pigments in marine animal fossils from the post-Paleozoic period.  They used an Agilent HPLC coupled to an Agilent Q-TOF LC/MS in their analysis.

By determining the colors of these extinct animals, including their camouflage and other markings, scientists can gain a better understanding of dinosaurs’ habitats and the environments in which they lived.


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