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New research points to dinosaurs' colorful past

There’s new evidence that dinosaurs, once thought to resemble scaly lizards, were in fact fluffy, colorful animals. In the video below, Curator Mark Norell, who is chair of the Museum’s Division of Paleontology and studies important feathered dinosaurs from Liaoning, China, shares his thoughts on the significance of two new studies about fossilized feathers reported in Science magazine. Created by American Museum of Natural History.

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Video transcript

>>MARK NORELL: Two papers appear in Science this week, both of which have important implications for the study of fossil feathers, ancient feathers, and the origin of feathers. One of these has to do with feathers which were discovered preserved in amber, in rocks that are about 80 million years old, from southern Alberta in Canada. Now, these are really spectacular because what they show is all of the different types of feathers, from very primitive feathers, like in tyrannosaurus, to the sorts of feathers that one sees in modern birds today, like loons and grebes and water birds. The importance of finding these fossils preserved in amber really tells us that some of these very primitive feathers, like the ones that are on the most primitive feathered dinosaurs, ones which have been found in China that are about 150 million years old, is that kind of feather was still present at the very end of the typical dinosaur times. And these feathers are from things like Tyrannosaurus, Compsognathus, and other carnivorous dinosaurs. A second paper appearing in Science this week uses a new technique of using a synchrotron to be able to look at very, very minute trace elements that signify color in some of these extinct dinosaurs, specifically, their feathers. Now, the importance of using the synchrotron as opposed to other ways of which of looking at color and fossil feathers, is that first we can look at places where the remaining color is in very, very small concentrations. Also, we don't have to destroy the specimens the way we would typically have to do, if we used traditional methods. So while I think that some of the observations in this paper are very preliminary, I think that it opens a whole new field and provides us with a whole new technique to look at some of these problems. Over the last decade and a half, one of the great discoveries, I think, in all of science is our understanding, now, that many of the dinosaurs that we always took for granted as giant, scaly sorts of animals, actually, were covered with feathers when they were alive. Now, what we would predict, just on the basis of our understanding of bird brains and bird vision, that these feathers were probably brightly colored. Now, we're starting to understand something about the color of fossil feathers. We're really at a really early stage of understanding these colors. But I think, over the next year or so, we're going to make some significant advances.