NEW DISCOVERIES OF DINOSAURS’ COLOURS AND PATTERNS ARE REVEALING HOW THESE ANCIENT BEASTS LIVED
by JOHN PICKRELL
ight years ago, as a bitter cold gripped the forests north of Alberta, Canada, a worker in a bitumen mine noticed a clang as his excavator hit something unexpected. Rocks of an unusual colour tumbled into view. Quite by chance, he had stumbled upon the most exquisitely preserved fossil of an armoured dinosaur ever discovered – a species of ankylosaur that in 2017 would be named Borealopelta.
EAfter being unearthed, the 110-million-year-old fossil ended up at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology in Drumheller, Alberta, where technicians spent 7,000 hours over the next six years chiselling away the rock entombing it. What they revealed looks more like a statue than a fossil – the preserved specimen includes much of the nearly six-metre-long animal, from its head to its hips, including remains of skin, armour plates and spikes. But it was dark smears that caught the attention of University of Bristol palaeobiologist and fossil colour expert, Dr Jakob Vinther. Analysis of the smears revealed traces of a reddish pigment, indicating the dinosaur’s skin colour. Borealopelta had entered the select group of dinosaurs to have their true colours revealed.
Skin and feather colours and patterns might seem like superficial details, but they could help rewrite our understanding of how dinosaurs lived and behaved. Today, animals use colour for camouflage, communication, attracting mates and warding off predators. Dinosaurs almost certainly did, too. We now know the colours of a handful of dinosaurs, including Borealopelta, the Caihong (this month’s cover star) and the 2