A footlong, 155-million-year-old dinosaur found in China some years ago was completely feathered, scientists tell us.
Molecular study, a relatively new process for studying dinosaurs, has shown that the body of this precursor to birds was gray, its wings striped black and white, the crest atop its head bright red.
Identification did not rely on size and shape, the usual determinants of dinosaur identification.
Dinosaurs belong to a group of animals today represented by birds and crocodiles. Our birds were not the first to wear feathers.
Paleobiologists are learning to go deep into what author Dale Greenwalt calls biomolecules, pulling from them DNA to reveal much about appearance, behavior and the evolution of those ancient creatures.
Greenwalt has a new book, "Remnants of Ancient Life," exploring what he calls the new science of old fossils. He tells us that some of these animals, when extant, wore brightly colored feathers.
Dinosaurs also built nests into which they laid eggs colored and marked like eggs seen in nests found in our neighborhoods.
Greenwalt describes an emerging science that is changing how we think about fossils — and feathers. He is resident research associate at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History. He curates a fossil insect collection.
Scientists are certain that many species of dinosaurs had feathers, in many cases brightly colored feathers, the author writes. His interest in the color of feathers began with discovery of a 46-million-year-old mosquito in a Montana shale formation.
The insect held fossilized blood. That led Greenwalt to examination of biomolecules — DNA, protein, pigments and other organic material preserved for millions of years. Color information was hidden there.
"Our ability to identify ancient pigments … has allowed us to reconstruct the color patterns of feathered dinosaurs," he writes.
Greenwalt said that questions arise about ancient functions and behaviors. Did feathers serve the same function then as now, for instance? (My question: Just how much dinosaur remains in that cardinal at our feeders?)
"If a 500-million-year-old organism produced a brilliant red pigment, does that mean that they — or perhaps their predators — could see and react to that color?" he writes.
Was red a factor in courtship or territorial defense as it would be today? How old is the bird behavior we watch?
I wonder about the color of those first eggs, an offhand color or functional? Did color vary by species? Same question for feathers.
An interesting thought: "Our ability to describe the pigmentation of … feathers presents an opportunity for the world's adventure parks, filmmakers and museums to revamp their exhibits and portrayals of dinosaurs," Greenwalt wrote.
If you've ever found any reality in the "Jurassic Park" movies, would it be more so if you saw the animals in bright colors? Would those animals look real or cartoonish?
Brightly colored feathers on dinosaurs would push reality for me. My dinosaurs are gray.
The book comes from Princeton University Press, hardbound, 276 pages, indexed, $27.95.
Lifelong birder Jim Williams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More reading on this subject can be found here: www.science.org, www.nationalgeographic.com, www.smithsonianmag.com, www.scientificamerican.com