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Fossilized melanosomes and the colour of Cretaceous dinosaurs and birds



Spectacular fossils from the Early Cretaceous Jehol Group1,2 of northeastern China have greatly expanded our knowledge of the diversity and palaeobiology of dinosaurs and early birds, and contributed to our understanding of the origin of birds, of flight, and of feathers. Pennaceous (vaned) feathers and integumentary filaments are preserved in birds3,4,5 and non-avian theropod dinosaurs6,7,8,9,10,11,12, but little is known of their microstructure. Here we report that melanosomes (colour-bearing organelles) are not only preserved in the pennaceous feathers of early birds, but also in an identical manner in integumentary filaments of non-avian dinosaurs, thus refuting recent claims13,14,15,16 that the filaments are partially decayed dermal collagen fibres. Examples of both eumelanosomes and phaeomelanosomes have been identified, and they are often preserved in life position within the structure of partially degraded feathers and filaments. Furthermore, the data here provide empirical evidence for reconstructing the colours and colour patterning of these extinct birds and theropod dinosaurs: for example, the dark-coloured stripes on the tail of the theropod dinosaur Sinosauropteryx can reasonably be inferred to have exhibited chestnut to reddish-brown tones.

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Figure 1: Melanosomes in an isolated pennaceous feather (IVPP V15388B).
Figure 2: Melanosomes in feathers of the bird Confuciusornis (IVPP V13171).
Figure 3: Melanosomes in the integumentary filaments of the dinosaur Sinosauropteryx (IVPP V14202).
Figure 4: Melanosomes in the integumentary filaments of the dinosaur Sinornithosaurus (IVPP V12811).

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We thank M. McNamara (University College Dublin), R. Prum (Yale University) and J. Simon (Duke University) for comments, and L. Leonard and N. Monaghan (National Museum of Ireland) for materials. This work was supported by the NERC, the Major Basic Research Projects of MST of China, and the National Natural Science Foundation of China.

Author Contributions F.Z., S.L.K., P.J.O., M.J.B., Z.Z. and D.J. designed the research, performed the research, analysed data and wrote the paper. X.W. and X.X. provided field assistance, discussion and materials for analysis.

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Correspondence to Michael J. Benton or Zhonghe Zhou.

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Zhang, F., Kearns, S., Orr, P. et al. Fossilized melanosomes and the colour of Cretaceous dinosaurs and birds. Nature 463, 1075–1078 (2010).

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