Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Not sure why anyone is surprised: Colorful dinosaurs

This article recently caught my eye: Chinese ‘rainbow dinosaur’ had iridescent feathers like hummingbirds

Scientists on Monday announced the discovery of a crow-sized, bird-like dinosaur with colorful feathers from northeastern China that lived 161 million years ago during the Jurassic Period.

They named it Caihong, the Mandarin word for rainbow. Microscopic structures in the exquisitely preserved, nearly complete fossil unearthed in Hebei Province indicated that it boasted iridescent feathers, particularly on its head, neck and chest, with colors that shimmered and shifted in the light, like those of hummingbirds…

Look, I get that most mammals don’t see color all that well, and thus mammals are by and large rather boringly colored. But this is because mammals are descended from nocturnal ancestors that had secondarily lost color vision, not because color vision is unusual. We are use to thinking (I guess?) that humans are special because of our pretty decent color vision. But practically all vertebrates see lots of colors just fine.

Birds see lots of colors, including colors we humans can’t see.

Lizards can see colors, many of them better than humans.

Fish can see plenty of colors, including some we can’t.

And you know what fish, lizards, and birds all have in common? Yes, they are often VERY COLORFUL.

Of course the default assumption should be that dinosaurs could see color. Why wouldn’t they? That’s true of most vertebrates. Camouflage is all very well and good, but display is also fundamental and very often the need for display completely overwhelms the need to stay out of sight — peacock’s tails come to mind here.

All those drab reconstructions of dinosaurs were always implausible, and obviously so.

It Must Have Been Colored Like an Elephant Because it Was Really Big

Even when authors and artists try to do better, they keep getting hung up on the idea that Big Animals Should Look Like Mammals, and thus be boringly colored.

This one is better, but still shows a limited palette.

While no doubt many dinosaurs, like many of today’s birds, WERE drab, there were surely plenty that were VERY BRIGHTLY COLORED. If I were an artist and called upon to envision realistic dinosaurs, while I’d pattern and color some like, oh, killdeer (I have always been very fond of killdeer), I would also base many colors and patterns on tanagers, trogons, hummingbirds, rollers, parrots, pheasants, kingfishers, and so on and so forth.

Maybe this “rainbow dinosaur” with its obvious pigmentation will start to urge artists in that direction…

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5 Comments Not sure why anyone is surprised: Colorful dinosaurs

  1. mona

    So this is why there are no blue roses? Or have they bred structurally blue roses that I don’t know about?

    But then why is there no blue pigment in the first place? (What am I missing?)

    Fascinating video, Sarahz! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Rachel

    There are some blue pigments! But apparently a lot of animals and plants just “discovered” the structural methods of getting blue rather than making the pigments. In either case, the reason there aren’t any true-blue roses is because of historical constraints: roses didn’t happen to ever evolve genes for either blue pigments or blue structural elements, and no matter how much plant breeders might want those genes to be in roses, there’s no way to get them into the plants . . . unless they can hybridize with related plants that have blue flowers (there aren’t any, so no luck there) or geneticists can insert the genes from an unrelated plant. The latter technique has been tried already, with only indifferent success because genetics is complicated. From Wikipedia:

    [A]fter thirteen years of collaborative research by an Australian company, Florigene, and a Japanese company, Suntory, a rose containing the blue pigment delphinidin was created in 2004 by genetic engineering of a white rose. The company and press have described it as a blue rose, but it is lavender or pale mauve in color.

    The genetic engineering involved three alterations – adding two genes, and interfering with another. First the researchers inserted a gene for the blue plant pigment delphinidin cloned from the pansy into a purplish-red Old Garden rose ‘Cardinal de Richelieu’, resulting in a dark burgundy rose. The researchers then used RNA interference (RNAi) technology to depress all other color production by endogenous genes by blocking a crucial protein in color production, called dihydroflavonol 4-reductase (DFR), and adding a variant of that protein that would not be blocked by the RNAi but that would allow the color of the delphinidin to show. If the strategy worked perfectly, in theory it could produce a truly blue rose. However the RNAi did not completely knock out the activity of DFR, so the resulting flower still made some of its natural color, and so was a red-tinged blue – a mauve or lavender. Additionally, rose petals are more acidic than pansy petals, and the pansy delphinidin in the transgenic roses is degraded by the acidity in the rose petals. Further deepening the blue colour would therefore require further modifications, by traditional breeding or further genetic engineering, to make the rose less acidic.

  3. mona

    Yikes! What a process. So cool though. Now if you would, a short story about a Beauty and her blue roses.

    Thanks for clarifying ^_^

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