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Study: Dinosaurs' color patterns reveal habitat preferences

"We predicted that the psittacosaur must have lived in a forest," said Earth scientist Jakob Vinther.

By Brooks Hays
Preserved pigments a newly unearthed fossil specimen of the dinosaur Psittacosaurus allowed scientists to recreate its color pattern -- a pattern that suggests the dinosaur lived mostly in the forest. Photo by Jakob Vinther and Robert Nicholls/University of Bristol
1 of 2 | Preserved pigments a newly unearthed fossil specimen of the dinosaur Psittacosaurus allowed scientists to recreate its color pattern -- a pattern that suggests the dinosaur lived mostly in the forest. Photo by Jakob Vinther and Robert Nicholls/University of Bristol

BRISTOL, England, Sept. 15 (UPI) -- Until recently, colors used in renderings of dinosaurs were simply an artist's best guess. New technologies and the discovery of preserved dino pigments have allowed paleontologists to get a better idea of the colors splashed across dino scales.

In a new study -- published this week in the journal Current Biology -- researchers were able to use their improved understanding of ancient pigments to deduce where a specific species liked to hang out.

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New analysis suggests the dinosaur Psittacosaurus was light-colored on its underside and darker on top. The revelation suggests the dino spent most of its time in an environment with diffused light, like a forest where the sun's rays are filtered through a thick canopy of leaves.

Researchers believe Psittacosaurus' coloring kept it from being easily spotted by predators who use the contrast of light and shadows to make out shapes and spot prey.

Psittacosaurus was a ceratopsian dinosaur which lived in what is now Asia during the Early Cretaceous, between 123 million and 100 million years ago. Its name translates as "parrot lizard," an allusion to its bird-like beak of a nose.

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The new research into the species' complexion and preferred habitat was made possible by the discovery of a new psittacosaur fossil in China. Along with the specimen's bones, researchers found preserved melanosomes, the tiny structures that carry the animal pigment melanin.

Advanced modeling allowed researchers to recreate the specimen in 3D -- a specimen flattened by millions of years inside rock. This allowed scientists to figure out which pigments belonged where on the specimen's body.

"Our Psittacosaurus was reconstructed from the inside-out," Bob Nichols, a paleontologist at the University of Bristol, said in a news release. "There are thousands of scales, all different shapes and sizes, and many of them are only partially pigmented. It was a painstaking process but we now have the best suggestion as to what this dinosaur really looked like."

The modeling process yielded a top-down, dark-light pattern -- a pattern that would have camouflaged a dinosaur in the forest.

"We predicted that the psittacosaur must have lived in a forest," concluded Earth scientist Jakob Vinther. "This demonstrates that fossil color patterns can provide not only a better picture of what extinct animals looked like, but they can also give new clues about extinct ecologies and habitats."

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