Dinosaurs probably looked just as awesome as you think they should have

When you’re little, you play with toy dinosaurs all bright red or blue or painted spotted with many colors. You fill coloring books with purple velociraptors taking down plaid apatosaurs. Then you get older and learn about camouflage; and you watch nature documentaries of brown felines taking down brown gazelles in tall brown grass; and—zebras notwithstanding—you start to think that probably dinosaurs weren’t plaid after all.

Well, buck up! They—at least some of them—probably did look really awesome.

Birds are descended from dinosaurs. (Strictly speaking, birds are dinosaurs. When I say “dinosaurs” for the rest of this post, though, I’ll be referring to non-avian dinosaurs.) Recently we’ve discovered that many dinosaurs had feathers, not just for flight but perhaps for display or thermoregulation. So a good model for a flightless, feathered, plant-eating dinosaur might be a flightless, feathered, plant-eating bird. And not all of those are brown.

My nomination for mental herbivorous dinosaur stand-in: the Takahe.Photo by digitaltrails

My nomination for mental herbivorous dinosaur stand-in: the Takahe.
Photo by digitaltrails

Photo by Craig Nash

Photo by Craig Nash

Juvenile Takahe.Photo by Peter Harrison

Juvenile Takahe.
Photo by Peter Harrison

Photo by Richard Ashurst

Photo by Richard Ashurst

It’s easy to picture herds of long-necked, thick-legged, twenty-foot-high, green-and-purple-feathered herbivores grazing on the plains…

Of course, there’s also the Emu. But we can pretend there isn’t.

Emu.Photo by World of Animal Welfare

Photo by World of Animal Welfare

Some dinosaurs had decorative feathers too, long tailfeathers and crests. So for the fast-running, predatory dinosaurs, we might look for a fast-running, predatory, crested bird.

Secretarybird.Photo by Mike Richardson and Sarah Winch

Photo by Mike Richardson and Sarah Winch

Secretarybirds kill snakes by stomping on them, then eat them.Photo by Brian Scott

Secretarybirds kill snakes by stomping on them, then eat them.
Photo by Brian Scott

Photo by Leopard-Girl

Photo by Leopard-Girl

Photo by Mike Richardson and Sarah Winch

Photo by Mike Richardson and Sarah Winch

Imagine a pack of raptors squabbling over a kill, jaws snapping in irritation, long crest feathers raised threateningly.

I could make up comparisons to extant birds all day, of course, and none of it would be more than completely unscientific speculation. But we aren’t entirely limited to speculation anymore.

In 2010, Li et al. published a description of the color patterns of a feathered theropod dinosaur, Anchiornis huxleyi, from the Jurassic period. They analyzed its color by looking at the preserved melanosomes, melanin-containing parts of the cell that determine much about the color of a feather. They found that the dinosaur was mostly grey, with longer feathers on its arms and legs that were white with black tips. Its face was grey with distinct reddish spots, and its crest was grey in front and reddish in the back.

In 2012, Li et al. examined the early Cretaceous feathered dinosaur Microraptor and determined that it was all glossy, iridescent black. Unfortunately, the specimen wasn’t preserved well enough for them to be able to tell if it would have had more of a green, blue, or purple sheen.

So when you imagine dinosaurs, go ahead and picture red spots, red crests, and shining purple feathers. Science is with you on this one.

Green Ibis: not so different from Microraptor?Photo by Alastair Rae

Green Ibis: not so different from Microraptor.
Photo by Alastair Rae


Li Q et al. 2010. Plumage color patterns of an extinct dinosaur. Science 327:1369-1372.

Li Q et al. 2012. Reconstruction of Microraptor and the evolution of iridescent plumage. Science 335:1215-1219.

10 thoughts on “Dinosaurs probably looked just as awesome as you think they should have

  1. I really enjoyed your speculative images! My brain is swirling with imaginary colorful dinosaurs right now. When I’m illustrating wildlife, I often wish more of them were colored, just for my own artistic ends. It seems like the majority of wildlife (at least the ones in the Pacific Northwest) are variations of “raw umber”, and shaded so that it’s hard to make them look like they have volume (light underneath, dark on top). I guess that’s a good thing when you’re trying to blend in to your surroundings…but it does make it hard on us artists! Thanks, this was a great post and loved the photos, too.

    • I’d never thought about how countershading would make an animal harder to illustrate, but of course, if the point is to make them look flat and blend in – they’ll do that in your illustration too! How funny.
      Mammals really seem to have a problem being anything other than earth tones. You must have some colorful birds and fish up there though – the breeding male salmon are all red and green, and there should be warblers and tanagers… I’m often surprised at how colorful familiar birds are when I make myself look really closely at them. Mallards have green and iridescent blue, but it’s hard to see because I’m so used to them that I don’t look for any beauty there unless I force myself.

  2. Those are some good looking birds! I notice you’ve not included chickens . . . I suppose all the raptor has been bred out of them. But do you think researchers will find better specimens so we’ll learn more about these colors?

    • Chickens are poor fliers and they do have crests sometimes, and they can be fierce (the males will fight violently, hence the popularity of cock fights)… There probably were some rather chicken-y dinosaurs. And nowadays, when you eat chicken, you’re really eating domesticated dinosaur.
      I don’t know if we’ll find better-preserved fossils, but our color-determining techniques will almost certainly improve. I definitely think we’ll continue to find out more.

  3. Listening to turkeys battle this past weekend in the East Bay, I couldn’t help but imagine the large birds as dinosaurs. As you write, though, there is no need to imagine them as such — they simply are. Thanks for the reminder.

  4. I loved dinosaurs as a kid and had a stegosaurus cake for my fifth birthday party. When my mum asked me what colour to make it I said pink and green.
    ‘Pink and green?!!’ she replied, as if that were a ridiculous and totally out-there suggestion (albeit from a just-five year old). I insisted that was what I wanted, green body with pink plates. So this is what I had.

    Fast forward ten or so years and I was watching a documentary about dinosaurs looking at how scientists could work out possible camouflage and skin or feather colours from fossilised remains. They suggested that stegosauruses would probably have been mostly greenish to blend in with their surrounding vegetation, but looking at the patterns made by the strong network of blood vessels on the fossilised plates of the spinal fins they thought these could have been used as a defensive or warning signal by flushing them with blood and therefore blushing them pink, rather like a bird raising a coloured crest to make itself look more threatening.

    My mum, who was watching with me, asked if I remembered the stegosaurus cake that she’d made.
    ‘Yes, of course. Green with pink fins. Doesn’t seem such a stupid colour scheme now does it?’

  5. Pingback: Microraptor dinosaurs ate fish | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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