What Color Were Your Dinosaurs?

Copyright, Kathiann M. Kowalski

Copyright, Kathiann M. Kowalski

What child doesn’t like toy dinosaurs? In real life, they were the biggest creatures on Earth. Yet you can pick a toy one up in your hand and make it do whatever you want. Some fly. Others swim. Still others lumber across lush landscapes of the imagination.

Plus, the plastic comes in neat colors. Blue and green and purple dinosaurs roamed around my make-believe world of the Mesozoic Era.

It wasn’t until later that I learned that those vivid colors weren’t scientifically accurate. They were just the product of the toymakers’ imaginations—and their desire to sell more toys with eye-popping colors. All we had left of the real dinosaurs were their bones, so no one knew what color they really were. Chances were their colors weren’t too far from those of today’s reptiles.

Now new research reveals the first direct evidence about what colors prehistoric animals were. An international team of scientists from Denmark, Sweden, the United States, and Great Britain analyzed fossilized skin pigment. The material came from three multi-million-year old marine reptiles.

The research doesn’t reveal that the animals came in the bright plastic colors I remember from my toy box. But it does show evidence of at least some dark skin coloring.

“The pigment melanin is almost unbelievably stable,” noted Per Uvdal of Sweden’s Lund University in an announcement about the study. The study appears this week in the journal Nature.

Possible functions for the coloring include better heat regulation, camouflage, and protection from ultraviolet radiation. Skin coloring generally serves similar functions today.

I’m skeptical about whether toymakers will take the new study into account for future manufacturing. But I’d be willing to be most of the research team played with toy dinosaurs at one point or another when they were kids.

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