Dr. Matthew Shawkey, assistant professor of biology at The University of Akron, in front of a projected image of the reconstruction of the plumage color of Anchiornis huxleyi, an extinct, non-avian dinosaur. Painting by Michael DiGiorgio.
Who knew the speckles on the face of the extinct, 160-million-year-old, feathered dinosaur Anchiomis huxleyi were reddish-brown?
No one, that is, until a team of researchers determined how to identify plumage colors of extinct feathered dinosaurs.
Team researcher, University of Akron assistant biology professor Dr. Matthew Shawkey, and postdoctoral fellow Dr. Liliana D’Alba collected data on modern-bird color and melanosome (melanin-containing granules) shapes and used them to assign colors to the fossil feathers.
Published in the journal Science, Feb. 4, 2010, “Plumage color patterns of an extinct dinosaur” by Shawkey of UA’s Integrated Bioscience Ph.D. program; Quanguo Li, Beijing Museum of Natural History; Keqin Gao, Peking University; Jakob Vinther, Department of Geology and Geophysics and the Peabody Museum of Natural History; Julia Clarke, University of Texas at Austin; and Richard Prum, Yale University, provides insight into the evolution of dinosaurs and their descendents, modern birds.
“These feather color patterns evolved before the ability to fly, suggesting that mate attraction or other communication functions were critical to the early evolution of feathers. Feathers may have been used for signaling or camouflage before they were ever used for flight,” Shawkey says.
UA assistant professor of biology Dr. Matthew Shawkey and postdoctoral fellow Liliana D’Alba examine modern-bird feathers. The duo collected data on modern-bird color and melanosome (melanin-containing granules) shapes and used them to assign colors to the fossil feathers.
Shawkey adds that the discovery, funded by National Geographic Society, National Science Foundation and Air Force Office of Scientific Research, provides inroads to data previously thought to be unobtainable. In a similar study released by Nature, another team of researchers led by Zhang Fucheng of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology ad Paleoanthropology and Mike Benton of the University of Bristol in the U.K. preliminarily reconstructed scattered portions of the plumage of other dinosaurs as brown, However, Shawkey and his fellow research team members quantitatively reconstructed the plumage color patterns of an entire dinosaur and expanded the palette of possible colors, showing that black, brown and grey are all extensively distributed in complex patterns in dinosaur feathers.
“It had been thought for a long time that the color of dinosaurs was always going to be a mystery,” says Shawkey. “Now we have shown that color can be reasonably reconstructed and this opens up the door to all kinds of questions about the roles of color in the lives and evolution of dinosaurs and their descendants.”
Shawkey and D’Alba describe their roles in the research as that of ornithologists who selected a number of black, brown and gray feathers from 36 different modern bird species and used scanning and transmission electron microscopy to examine the shape of their melansomes. They identified key melansome shapes — such as round and oval — associated with particular colors — such as black and brown — and used those associations to statistically assign colors to the fossil feathers.
In addition to the clues colors unlock about feathered dinosaurs, they provide educational and artistic benefits, says Shawkey, giving scientific illustrators the opportunity to more accurately recreate the appearance of dinosaurs for museum exhibits, magazines, textbooks and other mediums.
“It’s clearly an exciting way to teach children and young adults about the science of color,” Shawkey says.
Media contact: Denise Henry, 330-972-6477; email@example.com.