For the many of us who aren’t expert paleontologists, it’s difficult to comprehend how scientists concluded what dinosaurs looked like and how we know they had scales or feathers. This is because when we think of fossils, most of us think of a cluster of bones found in the dirt, maybe in the shape of a leg or two. While this is partially true, fossils can be, and often are, so much more than dusty old bones and can provide us with a lot of information. They can tell us a lot about what a dinosaur ate, how they died, and—yes—even what they looked like!
How Do We Know They Had Scales?
When scientists reconstruct dinosaurs, a large part of the process is done through what is known as “comparative anatomy.” This means they compare fossilized findings to living animals we know today, as many “modern animals” evolved from dinosaurs, like birds. What does this have to do with fossils and dinosaurs’ scales?
Although it’s rare, paleontologists have found fossilized pieces of dinosaur skin and can tell what kind of scales they had by comparing them to other animals like crocodiles and lizards. There are even preserved, highly detailed footprints that show us exactly what their skin looked like. The tricky part is that only about 77 fossilized skin specimens have been discovered. Therefore, we don’t know for sure if some of these dinos were completely covered in scales.
What About Feathers?
We know that dinosaurs had scales because of impressions and fossilized skin, but how do we know they had feathers? That answer is a little more complex. Feathers are mostly made of protein, so they tend to break down much faster than bones. This means that there are only impressions of feathers found along the silhouette of a dinosaur’s remains.
However, these feathers aren’t as evolved as feathers we know today, as they don’t have vanes, nor did they allow these dinosaurs to fly. Instead, these feathers were more like fuzz, and it’s thought they were used for warmth and to attract mates. As dinosaurs evolved, though, these feathers did become more complex, and some were even colorful.
Do We Know What Colors They Were?
Some dinosaurs had scales, and some dinosaurs had feathers, but are all the depictions of green scales and rainbow feathers real? The answer is yes and no. Some dinosaurs were green, but not as many as you might think, and very few had multicolored feathers. In truth, the idea of a rainbow dinosaur came from the Caihong juji, a duck-sized dinosaur with iridescent feathers that shifted color. How do we know this?
Every animal has what is known as melanosomes, which is an organelle that generates pigment cells. Amazingly enough, melanosomes can become fossilized and incredibly well preserved! Scientists can analyze and look at them through a microscope to determine the pigments that they produce and, thus, the color of the dinosaur! While some dinosaurs were more colorful than others, most were shades of brown, grey, and green to camouflage themselves.
Just because dinosaurs didn’t come in an array of neons and pastels doesn’t mean they weren’t beautifully colored and patterned. You can see just how majestic they were with our realistic and detailed high-quality dinosaur figures for sale! Our collection of beasts of the Mesozoic Era displays the mosaic of pigments and patterns that dinosaurs really came in.