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What Color Were Dinosaur Feathers? We May Soon Know

The news that many dinosaurs were likely covered in a thick layer of feathers may make them seem a little less imposing — but it also means they may have been intensely colorful. Now scientists have found that the few feathers that survived the fossilization process may hold a clue to the dinosaurs' hue.

For years, biologists have debated whether any of the color-producing organelles in feathers, called melanosomes, actually remained after millions of years underground. Research by paleontologists at Brown University makes a very strong case that they do — and not only that, but they may contain a remnant of the chemicals that gave the feathers their original colors.

In the case of Anchiornis huxleyi, the birdlike dinosaur examined at a molecular level by the researchers, those colors were likely ... black. At least partially.

The science establishing feather chemistry as indicative of true color is still new, so there hasn't been time to test every fossil with intact feathers out there. That will likely change soon, as other paleontologists apply these new techniques to isolate coloration chemicals in specimens worldwide.

In the paper's conclusion, the researchers state that their work "demonstrates the aptitude of rigorous experimental techniques for identifying ancient biomolecules and their use in characterising 'palaeo-colours.'" In other words, it works.

The study was published Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports.