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Do Dinosaurs Have Feathers? Color Patterns of Strange Parrot Lizard Could Reveal Where Dinosaurs Lived

Sep 15, 2016 06:00 PM EDT
Microraptor gui holotype
Pictured above is another feathered dinosaur, the holotype of Microraptor gui, IVPP V 13352 under normal light. This shows the preserved feathers (white arrow) and the 'halo' around the specimen where they appear to be absent (black arrows).
(Photo : David W. E. Hone, Helmut Tischlinger, Xing Xu, Fucheng Zhang/Wiki Commons)

The fossil of an adorable but strange bird-lizard from China, known as Psittacosaurus of "parrot lizard," could reveal clues of where dinosaurs lived before their extinction.

According to the study published in the journal Current Biology, a team of researchers from Bristol University has reconstructed the fossil of the bird-like dinosaur to trace its color patterns.

The Psittacosaurus lived about 100 to 123 million years ago. It was about the size of a turkey and featured a birdlike beat, a bristled tail and horns protruding from its feathery cheeks.

In order for the researchers to reconstruct the parrot lizard and its color patterns, they had to preserve the melanin patterns in the fossil, then applying it on a 3D model of the animal with the help of paleoartist Bob Nichholls.

"Our Psittacosaurus was reconstructed from the inside-out. There are thousands of scales, all different shapes and sizes, and many of them are only partially pigmented. It was a painstaking process but we now have the best suggestion as to what this dinosaur really looked like," Nicholls said.

The reconstruction reveals that Psittacosaurus has a darker top and light underside. This distinct color pattern or countershading is commonly found in animals that have the ability to camouflage, reports. Psittacosaurus countershading suggests that the ancient reptile lived in an environment where it had to hide from predators, such as a forest with diffused light.

"The fossil preserves clear countershading, which has been shown to function by counter-illuminating shadows on a body, thus making an animal appear optically flat to the eye of the beholder," said Dr. Jakob Vinther, lead author of the study. "We were amazed to see how well these color patterns actually worked to camouflage this little dinosaur."

The new discovery suggests that dinosaurs could have feathers. In April this year, Stephen J. Bodio published an article on Bird Magazine, raising a question about dinosaurs having feathers.

He points out past theories of Robert Bakker, who describe the infamous Tyrannosaurus rex as “the 20,000 pound roadrunner from Hell.” Bodio also pointed out the game-changer discovery of John Ostrom from Yale. In 1964, Ostrom discovered the fossil of a dinosaur called Deinonychus, who is hypothesized to be warm-blooded.

The researchers are eager to study more fossil to further shed light on how dinosaurs and other species camouflaged themselves and understand the role of the animals' environment to their evolution.

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