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Fossilized melanosomes and the colour of Cretaceous dinosaurs and birds

Nature volume 463, pages 10751078 (25 February 2010) | Download Citation

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Abstract

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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Acknowledgements

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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Affiliations

  1. Key Laboratory of Evolutionary Systematics of Vertebrates, Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, PO Box 643, Beijing 100044, China

    • Fucheng Zhang
    • , Zhonghe Zhou
    • , Xing Xu
    •  & Xiaolin Wang
  2. Department of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol, Bristol BS8 1RJ, UK

    • Stuart L. Kearns
    •  & Michael J. Benton
  3. UCD School of Geological Sciences, University College Dublin, Belfield, Dublin 4, Ireland

    • Patrick J. Orr
  4. Planetary and Space Sciences Research Institute, The Open University, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes MK7 6AA, UK

    • Diane Johnson

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Michael J. Benton or Zhonghe Zhou.

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    Supplementary Information

    This file contains Supplementary Notes, including Methods and Results, Supplementary References and Supplementary Figure S1 with Legend.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/nature08740

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