New research reveals that some dinosaurs were covered in vivid colors, with bright violet, orange and pink patches marching across the jaw and body of some creatures, including two common ones: the ceratopsian and tetrapod.
A team led by paleontologist Timothy Daniel Mennel analyzed the bones and color patterns of the extinct ancestors of triceratops and crocodiles, the dromaeosaurs, in the Upstate New York region, where dinosaurs lived about 150 million years ago. They found that from the mid-early Cretaceous period onward, ancient dinosaurs showed amazing array of color. For instance, one dinosaur, called Quetzalcoatlus and found in New York, had a colorful pattern of internal gums on its neck. Another species, Psittacosaurus, had sections of pink-tinted enamel patches on the head, like the tips of lipstick.
“How these animals were able to reproduce [is very similar to] how you’d live in the modern world. It’s just these animals were well adapted to live in the environment that they were in,” said Chad Wingert, a paleontologist at George Washington University and author of the study published today (July 29) in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.
[Read: 5 Reasons We Really Don’t Get Paleontology]
Discovery of animal skin patterns has been crucial to understanding other aspects of dinosaurs and their ecology, such as why they were agile swimmers and ballers.
Over time, paleontologists have seen a steady rise in the number of dromaeosaur fossils found in the Upstate New York area, according to research by Daniel Herbert, a paleontologist at the University of New Hampshire. Part of the reason behind the appearance of the epidermis patches, and thus the evolution of color, lies in the structures of tooth enamel, which adapts to many environmental conditions, Herbert told Live Science in an email.
“The way our own bodies adapt to changing environments has much to do with our sharp fangs and highly modified toenails. If you live in near-tropical or tropical environments, the temperature swings cause your teeth to develop differently, as do the peaks and valleys of your thyroid hormones,” Herbert said.
Deep crevices and the rapid temperature swings that occur in the Upstate of New York also foster the formation of more visible color, Herbert said.
“What this means is that carotenoids are present in the dinosaurs, and their overgrown teeth and highly vascularized heads are both robust enough to support their skins in the form that they eventually did as their day-to-day bodies changed,” Herbert said. “In other words, some eventually evolved colors, while the good old chorizo could continue to be the unquestionable standard of paleontological beauty.”
Christopher Nelson, the publication editor for Nature Ecology & Evolution, pointed out to Live Science that while it’s true that dinosaurs had the ability to adapt to many different environments, they didn’t change their skin color regularly. “Dinosaur species which show relatively broad horizons of change in skin color over a short period of time — the ostrich being an example — tend to be characterized by lack of heterochromacy, meaning a degree of varying pigmentation over time, rather than continuously evolving heterochromed ornamentation over time,” Nelson said in an email.
He said this research shows that diversity in dromaeosaur fossils from North America is revealing important information about the evolution of color in the immortals.
Originally published on Live Science.