Agilent and the Amazing Red-Headed Dinosaur

Paleontologists have detected color in a dinosaur fossil!

The fossil itself has an amazing story.  In 2011, Canadian miners were excavating in a pit near Alberta.  Their backhoe hit an unusually hard rock.  The 2,500 pound, nine-foot long specimen turned out to be the best fossil of a nodosaur ever found.

The nodosaurus was a North American dinosaur from the late Cretaceous period (about 110 million years ago).  It had short legs, was about 18 feet long with a long tail, and had bony plates and spikes along its body.

The fossil is only the front half of the dinosaur.  But it is so intact, it looks like a sculpture of a nodosaur.  There are still remnants of skin on its armored plates.  “We don’t just have a skeleton,” says museum researcher Caleb Brown.  “We have a dinosaur as it would have been.” (National Geographic)

The nodosaur fossil (image courtesy of wikimedia commons)

The nodosaur fossil (images from Wikimedia Commons)


And now, Canadian researchers have discovered chemical traces of pheomelanin in the dinosaur’s fossilized hide.  This is the same pigment that gives redheaded people their hair color.  The nodosaur was a “ginger.”

Its reddish brown coloring was darker on top than on the bottom.  A similar pattern helps obscure the silhouettes of modern deer and antelope.  This indicates that nodosaur relied on camouflage, meaning it was preyed upon by even larger dinosaurs.

I’ve blogged before about how Agilent has been helping archaeologists find traces of color-producing chemicals in fossils.  For this study, the scientists used chemical analysis.  Their equipment included an Agilent gas chromatograph and GC column.

“I never seriously thought that color preservation on this scale would have been possible,” says University of Maryland paleontologist Thomas R. Holtz.  “This skeleton is truly spectacular in terms of the quality of completeness.” (Washington Post)

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