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How Do Scientists Determine What Colors Dinosaurs Were

Thanks to the archeological treasure trove we’ve found under the surface over the last hundred years, we’ve learned many things about our planet’s past.

Looking at certain fossils may reveal to us an entire species’ migration patterns, what climates they thrived in, and even what their diets consisted of.

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We many things thanks to fossils, so why hasn’t anyone explained how we determined what colors these fossils were when organic material covered them? The answer to the question is actually quite interesting and longer than one would expect.

The Definition of Color

According to Smithsonianmag.com, “Color is simply visible light. Anything that scatters the energy between the wavelengths of 400 to 700 nanometers is what scientists call visible light.”

The difference is that energy is what our human minds and eyes perceive as changes in color or various shades of the same color. Our eyes can see a vast spectrum of visible light, but insects and other animals can perceive colors that our optics cannot.

The Fossils that Hint at Color

The same fossils that can tell us what shape an animal was are also the same that can tell us what color(s) they were. Despite the fact that many parts of the same fossil may display color of some sort, it takes a trained eye to spot them.

Fossils such as those containing feathers, scales or mollusk shells display light and dark color patterns. Oftentimes, an archaeologist is able to determine if the creature displayed iridescence if the fossil displays a shimmery metallic sheen.

Cephalapod fossils (related to Octopus and Squid) were found with ink-sac-shaped blotches. After chemical analyses, researchers were able to determine the melanin in the ink of modern cephalopods and the melanin in the fossil ink were one and the same.

Melanin is also the skin pigment that helps determine the shade a human’s skin will become.

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How Color Develops in Nature

When I was a kid, my thoughts about animal colors only went as far as thinking “oh, they’re born that way.” As will all things in life, there is far more to the different shades of color we find in nature.

There are two main ways that color develops in nature: first, with the use of pigment and second, through ‘structural color.’

Coloring through the use of pigment is most common and shared among all mammals and modern flora.

Plants and flowers use a unique pigment known as chlorophyll, to turn green. We see this green because the chlorophyll absorbs the red and blue wavelengths of the light spectrum. Pigments are known to ‘selectively absorb light’, which means each pigment may only filter out a single color.

Some of the most common pigments of mammal life are melanins, which we can thank our brown hair for. Interestingly enough, melanin is the same pigment that makes bird feathers and portabella caps brown.

Other pigments found in and produced exclusively by plants are carotenoids. What makes this pigment special is how animals can take on the colors of the food they ingest. For example, the red cardinal has such vibrant feathers thanks to its very particular diet of fruit and berries.

I didn’t know it before, but the pink from flamingos actually comes from the algae ingested by their favorite food, tiny shrimp.

The second way that color is produced is when specialized tissue is folded at the nanometer level, filtering out specific wavelengths of light with the use of biological tissue. Structural color is responsible for all the vibrant shades we see in nature, from fuzzy caterpillars to poisonous tree frogs.

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Survival through Color Adaption

The survival of many species depends on their ability to blend in with their environment or group. Zebras, for example, are colored black and white, a common color pattern among social mammals. Research has also found it also wards off and confuses diseased flies to no end, preventing them from ever landing.

Much of the ocean that existed hundreds of years ago, still exists among the ocean floor. We are lucky enough to see the living fossils of our aquatic past. In the oldest of coral reefs, we see vibrant fish among the stalks. Biologically, these colors attract mates who are close-by and messes with the vision of distant predators.

Biology has helped us figure out that many animals we see today have existed for thousands of years. We can use what we see and hear today and apply it retroactively to how prehistoric animals developed their color and why.

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