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.
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.
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.
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.
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.