Painful Truth: Science brings dinosaur to vibrant life

When it comes to dinosaurs, a few names are common knowledge.

Tyrannosaurs rex, Triceratops, Brontosaurus (which is back as a legitimate name again) come up again and again.

Psittacosaurus is less well known to the general public. But it’s very well known to palaeontologists.

Psittacosaurus’ name means “parrot lizard,” given because of its big beaky mouth. It wasn’t big, it wasn’t fierce, it wasn’t hugely impressive looking. It was about the size of a small pig, ran around on its hind legs and had stumpy little arms, had a sort of boxy face with a couple of little horns on his cheeks. It ate plants, and is unlikely to star in any future Jurassic Park films.

But one thing Psittacosaurus had going for it? There were a lot of them.

Because of that, and because of where they lived, there a plenty of fossils of Psittacosaurus. That’s important, because for many dinosaurs, there are no complete skeletons. We’ve got a skull, or the front half of a skeleton, or the back half. Sometimes it’s the whole thing, minus the head, or there’s just one little tooth.

But we know Psittacosaurus nose to tail. And better than that – we know its insides and its outsides.

Psittacosaurus fossils from one particular region in China are so well preserved that some of them include fossilized skin. A while back we learned that they had an improbable-looking frill of hair-like filaments – most likely simple feathers – sticking up from the back of their tails. And now, we even know what colour they were.

An amazing reconstruction has been done by artist Bob Nichols, guided by palaeontologist Dr. Jakob Vinther and his team.

Vinther took an astonishingly complete fossil and studied the skin. They found preserved melanosomes – skin pigments – inside the fossils, and used lasers to determine their colour in life.

So for the first time, we know what a classic dinosaur really looked like, pretty much nose to tail.

It wasn’t that long ago that we were told that colour was the one thing we’d never know about dinosaurs. But painstaking research, modern technology, and a little luck has made it possible.

It’s making me wonder what we’ll discover about the past next. The great thing about palaeontology is that there are always more questions, which means more surprising answers await.


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