Posted by: Brad Nixon | February 8, 2010

The Color of Dino

There is nothing like dinosaurs. Obviously, there IS nothing, because they’re extinct. But for some of us, the idea that there were monstrous, outlandish beasts roaming around the earth eons ago is one that is utterly enthralling and a source of never-ending fascination — unless, that is, you are attending an awards banquet and one of them is at the podium keeping you from dessert or you have one as the Principal at your school. I suppose the continued popularity of all kinds of science fiction stories, especially the “Jurassic Park” books and movies proves that this interested audience is wide.

I previously made a brief mention of my childhood ambition to be a paleontologist, HERE, before it became apparent that one would also have to learn some actual science to do so. (Apparently my word for it when I was very little was “dinosaur digger,” at least according to my mother).

It’s been impressive to watch how dinosaurs have evolved in only 50 years or so since I started reading about them. In those early days, I was familiar with huge, lumbering, brutish beasts — animals! But, in only a few decades, they’ve made great strides, not least in how they stride. Originally, dinosaurs reflected the stiff, upright posture appropriate to the Victorian era in which they were first described by early scientists studying fossils. Despite possessing huge hind legs which have been evident from the earliest fossil discoveries (the word “dinosaur” comes from the Greek for “terrible thunder thighs,” if memory serves), only lately have scientists allowed them to abandon that upright posture, lean into it and become even fiercer, forward-leaning athletes.

Prior to some time in the 8os, dinos didn’t have much behavior that couldn’t be observed in any local bar: crashing around, drooling on hapless people, eating randomly, fighting, betting on boxing, but today’s dinos have parenting skills. We got the first hint of this from Roy Chapman Andrews’ expedition to Mongolia in the 1920s, when he discovered “clutches” of Protoceratops eggs. Andrews and his contemporaries made some initial stabs at picturing what behavior this discovery suggested, but a later generation of dinosaur diggers now uses the term “nest” instead of “clutch,” and unearthed a vast amount of evidence indicating that dinosaurs, especially Hadrosaurs (formerly lumped into the descriptive class “duck-billed dinosaurs”) not only watched these nests but had a well-evolved social structure and parented the young dinos in a thoroughly satisfying way, cautioning the young ones about maintaining a school-life balance and against too much texting, not to mention abstinence before marriage.

When I was a kid, there was one “fossil bird,” Archaeopteryx — sort of an oddball spinoff of the dinosaur family tree. No one knew what to do with him. In the most spectacular bit of seeing-the-obvious in history, driven by the discovery of a wide variety of other fossil birds, brilliant scientists connected these skeletons with the long-established existence of a huge body of other dinosaur skeletons termed “bird-hipped.” Sure enough, those dinos didn’t have pelvises like birds, they were birds — primordial ones. The dinosaurs, through the magic of evolution, figured out that if the ol’ lizard-hipped predators were leaning forward and running faster, they’d go them one better, grow feathers and learn to FLY! Yes, dear old Chauncey the Chicken back on Grandma’s farm is a surviving dinosaur. Remarkable. Chauncey, of course, has mostly given up flying in the intervening 60 million years, but plenty of cousins do still take to the air, and watching them hop lamely around on the ground, it’s easy to see why they prefer flying.

The final thing missing is color — we were never very creative in assigning color to dinosaurs. Even though the world’s snakes and lizards and BIRDS are some of the most brilliantly colored critters you can find, for some reason dinosaurs were always an olive drab or gray or just non-color. This may be due to the influence of too many aspiring scientists watching old black and white science fiction movies. I know that if Ray Harryhausen had put a magenta-and-blue Tyrannosaurus in a movie, I would not have bought it for a minute.

Now, we get to the latest, coolest discovery. It turns out that scientists have determined that the point at which feathers join the animal also has a little marker indicating the color of the feather that grows there. Someone thought to look at some well-preserved fossils of ancient dinosaur-birds and there they were: little dots. For the first time, we’re learning about the actual colors of dinosaurs.

The New York Times reports the story HERE.

Only one mystery remains. Why did the dinosaurs die out? Certainly some future generation of dinosaur diggers will uncover evidence proving that, first, dinosaurs learned to drive. Then, they all got guns and decided it was okay to carry them around with them everywhere. The final piece of the puzzle will be the dinosaur cell phone. One fatal day on the Cretaceous Cruiseway, a Cadillac driven by a Tyrannosaur was rear-ended by a little foreign model piloted by a Struthiomimus, oblivious to traffic conditions because he was busy texting his girlfriend up in La Brea. Shots rang out, the violence spread and, then, Armageddon.

No wonder the birds flew away.

Armageddon outa here.

© copyright Brad Nixon


  1. Hope you don’t mind my commenting. We’re just working to keep the sense of adventure in discovery that Roy Chapman Andrews inspires alive. 🙂


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