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.
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $3.83 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
Zhou, Z.-H., Barrett, P. M. & Hilton, J. An exceptionally preserved Lower Cretaceous ecosystem. Nature 421, 807–814 (2003)
Benton, M. J., Zhou, Z.-H., Orr, P. J., Zhang, F.-C. & Kearns, S. L. The remarkable fossils from the Early Cretaceous Jehol Biota of China and how they have changed our knowledge of Mesozoic life. Proc. Geol. Assoc. 119, 209–228 (2008)
Zhang, F.-C. & Zhou, Z.-H. A primitive enantiornithine bird and the origin of feathers. Science 290, 1955–1959 (2000)
Zhang, F.-C. & Zhou, Z.-H. Leg feathers in an Early Cretaceous bird. Nature 431, 925 (2004)
Zhang, F.-C., Zhou, Z.-H. & Benton, M. J. A primitive confuciusornithid bird from China and its implications for early avian flight. Sci. China D 51, 625–639 (2008)
Chen, P.-J., Dong, Z.-M. & Zhen, S.-N. An exceptionally well-preserved theropod dinosaur from the Yixian Formation of China. Nature 391, 147–152 (1998)
Ji, Q., Currie, P. J., Norell, M. A. & Ji, S.-A. Two feathered dinosaurs from northeastern China. Nature 393, 753–761 (1998)
Xu, X., Wang, X.-L. & Wu, X.-C. A dromaeosaurid dinosaur with filamentous integument from the Yixian Formation of China. Nature 401, 262–266 (1999)
Xu, X. et al. Four-winged dinosaurs from China. Nature 421, 335–340 (2003)
Xu, X. & Wang, X. A. A new maniraptoran from the Early Cretaceous Yixian Formation of western Liaoning. Vertebr. PalAsiat. 41, 195–202 (2003)
Xu, X. & Zhang, F.-C. A new maniraptoran dinosaur from China with long feathers on the metatarsus. Naturwissenschaften 92, 173–177 (2005)
Xu, X., Zheng, X. & You, H. A new feather type in a nonavian theropod and the early evolution of feathers. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 106, 832–834 (2009)
Lingham-Soliar, T. Evolution of birds: ichthyosaur integumental fibers conform to dromaeosaur protofeathers. Naturwissenschaften 90, 428–432 (2003)
Lingham-Soliar, T. The dinosaurian origin of feathers: perspectives from dolphin (Cetacea) collagen fibres. Naturwissenschaften 90, 563–567 (2003)
Feduccia, A., Lingham-Soliar, T. & Hinchliffe, J. R. Do feathered dinosaurs exist? Testing the hypothesis on neontological and paleontological evidence. J. Morphol. 266, 125–166 (2005)
Lingham-Soliar, T., Feduccia, A. & Wang, X. A new Chinese specimen indicates that ‘protofeathers’ in the Early Cretaceous theropod dinosaur Sinosauropteryx are degraded collagen fibres. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B 274, 1823–1829 (2007)
Zheng, X.-T., You, H.-L., Xu, X. & Dong, Z.-M. An Early Cretaceous heterodontosaurid dinosaur with filamentous integumentary structures. Nature 458, 333–336 (2009)
Zhang, F.-C., Zhou, Z.-H. & Dyke, G. J. Feathers and 'feather-like' integumentary structures in Liaoning birds and dinosaurs. Geol. J. 41, 395–404 (2006)
Prum, R. O. & Brush, A. H. The evolutionary origin and diversification of feathers. Q. Rev. Biol. 77, 261–295 (2002)
Prum, R. O. Evolution of the morphological innovations of feathers. J. Exp. Zool. B 304, 570–579 (2005)
McGraw, K. J. in Bird Coloration. 1. Mechanisms and Measurements (eds Hill, G. E. & McGraw, K. J.) 243–294 (Harvard Univ. Press, 2006)
Wuttke, M. “Weichteil-Erhaltung” durch lithifizierte Mikroorganismen bei mittel-eozänen Vetebraten aus den Ölschiefern der “Grube Messel” bei Darmstadt. Senck. Leth. 64, 509–527 (1983)
Vinther, J., Briggs, D. E. G., Prum, R. O. & Saranathan, V. The colour of fossil feathers. Biol. Lett. 4, 522–525 (2008)
Vinther, J., Briggs, D. E. G., Clarke, J., Mayr, G. & Prum, R. O. Structural coloration in a fossil feather. Biol. Lett. 10.1098/rsbl.2009.0524 (published online 26 August 2009)
Durrer, H. in Biology of the Integument 2, Vertebrates (eds Bereiter-Hahn, J., Matolsky, A. G. & Richards, K. S.) 239–247 (Springer, 1986)
Prum, R. O. & Williamson, S. Reaction-diffusion models of within-feather pigmentation patterning. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B 269, 781–792 (2002)
Ortolani-Machado, C. F., Freitas, P. F. & Faraco, C. D. Melanogenesis in dermal melanocytes of Japanese Silky chicken embryos. Tissue Cell 41, 239–248 (2009)
Prum, R. & Torres, R. Structural coloration of avian skin: convergent evolution of coherently scattering dermal collagen arrays. J. Exp. Biol. 206, 2409–2429 (2003)
Sawyer, R. H., Washington, L. D., Salvatore, B. A., Glenn, T. C. & Knapp, L. W. Origin of archosaurian integumentary appendages: the bristles of the wild turkey beard express feather-type β keratins. J. Exp. Zool. B 297, 27–34 (2003)
Prum, R. O. in Bird Coloration Vol. 1 (eds Hill, G. E. & McGraw, K. J.) 295–353 (Harvard Univ. Press, 2006)
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.
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
About this article
Cite this article
Zhang, F., Kearns, S., Orr, P. et al. Fossilized melanosomes and the colour of Cretaceous dinosaurs and birds. Nature 463, 1075–1078 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature08740
Gondwana Research (2020)
Scientific Reports (2019)
Frontiers in Earth Science (2019)
Taphonomic experiments resolve controls on the preservation of melanosomes and keratinous tissues in feathers
Integumentary structure and composition in an exceptionally well-preserved hadrosaur (Dinosauria: Ornithischia)