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What Color Were Dinosaurs? Test Of Ancient Skin Sample Will Reveal Final Answer

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Apr 29, 2013 03:09 PM EDT
A dinosaur skin sample from a 70-million-year-old hadrosaur is being tested at the Canadian Light Source. This is one of only a few skin samples ever found
A dinosaur skin sample from a 70-million-year-old hadrosaur is being tested at the Canadian Light Source. This is one of only a few skin samples ever found (Photo : Canadian Light Source synchrotron)

Our books and films have long depicted dinosaurs to be some shade of green or brown- and for all we know, that might be accurate. But by testing one of the world's only well-preserved dinosaur skin samples at the Canadian Light Source (CLS) synchrotron, researchers hope to determine a more definitive answer on dinosaur skin color as well as explain how a 70-million-year-old hunk of skin has been so well preserved.

The sample of hadrosaur skin was found close to a riverbed near Grand Prairie, Alberta, Canada in 2012. The hardosaur was a duck-billed dinosaur from the Late Cretaceous period (100-65 million years ago).

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"As we excavated the fossil, I thought that we were looking at a skin impression. Then I noticed a piece came off and I realized this is not ordinary - this is real skin. Everyone involved with the excavation was incredibly excited and we started discussing research projects right away," said University of Regina physicist Mauricio Barbi in a statement from CLS.

Barbi said this is only the third three-dimensional dinosaur skin specimen ever found worldwide.

"This fossil is fascinating because it can tell us so much about the life and the appearance of the dinosaurs in the area."

The researchers my find that the hardosaur had skin of some greenish gray hue; or it could be found to appear entirely different. They will use the CLS to look at unique structures called melanosomes, cellular organelles that contain pigments that control the color of an animal's skin.

"If we are able to observe the melanosomes and their shape, it will be the first time pigments have been identified in the skin of a dinosaur," said Barbi. "We have no real idea what the skin looks like. Is it green, blue, orange...There has been research that proved the color of some dinosaur feathers, but never skin.

For the experiment, the CLS will emit a beam of infrared light which the skin sample will reflect. Chemical bonds of certain compounds will create different vibrations, which can be measured and used to extrapolate meaning.

"It is astonishing that we can get information like this from such an old sample," said Tim May, CLS Mid-IR staff scientist. "Skin has fat and lots of dead cells along with many inorganic compounds. We can reflect the infrared beam off the sample and we can analyze the samples to give us very clear characteristics."

For Barbi, how the skin sample survived since the Cretaceous period is a greater question than the color of skin.   

"What's not clear is what happened to this dinosaur and how it died," he said. "There is something special about this fossil and the area where it was found, and I am going to find out what it is."

University of Regina physicist Mauricio Barbi holds up a hadrosuar skin sample. Barbi hopes his research will help determine skin color and why the fossil preserved intact. (Photo: Canadian Light Source synchrotron)
University of Regina physicist Mauricio Barbi holds up a hadrosuar skin sample. Barbi hopes his research will help determine skin color and why the fossil preserved intact. (Photo: Canadian Light Source synchrotron)

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