What Color Was T-Rex? Scientists May Soon Know For the first time, scientists have discovered a way to identify the colors of extinct animals, including dinosaurs, through studying their fossils.
NPR logo

What Color Was T-Rex? Scientists May Soon Know

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/444660099/444660100" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
What Color Was T-Rex? Scientists May Soon Know

What Color Was T-Rex? Scientists May Soon Know

What Color Was T-Rex? Scientists May Soon Know

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/444660099/444660100" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

For the first time, scientists have discovered a way to identify the colors of extinct animals, including dinosaurs, through studying their fossils.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's add some color now to a story many millions of years old - the story of the dinosaurs. Scientists have been able to learn a lot about dinosaurs by studying fossils.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

As in, did they move quickly or slowly? Were they meat eaters or vegetarians? Up to now, though, fossils have not provided a lot of clues about what color dinosaurs were. But they are getting closer.

JAKOB VINTHER: We have been looking at the pigment melanin, which we find in our skin and our hair.

INSKEEP: That's Jakob Vinther of the University of Bristol in Britain. Vinther and scientists from Virginia Tech confirmed traces of melanin in fossils dating back millions of years, and that melanin may provide a vital clue.

VINTHER: The kinds of hair colors that we see in humans, ranging from black to ginger, are made by melanin.

MONTAGNE: Bits of melanin are found inside cells, and the shape of those bits says something about the color of the creature.

VINTHER: If you have a black melanosome, they're shaped like a sausage whereas if you have a red melanosome, then they're shaped like a little meatball.

INSKEEP: Turns out, this meatball and sausage theme is pretty consistent across nature.

VINTHER: I myself is quite sort of ginger in my appearance. My beard is very, very sort of reddish. And if you took a look at the melanosomes in my beard, they will be shaped like little meatballs. And then if you have, for example, an American robin, they have this reddish-brown chest and they would also have these kinds of meatballs.

MONTAGNE: So the researchers are presuming the shapes may also have matched the color of creatures from the distant past. The team checked the melanin from two species of bat that lived almost 50 million years ago. They were a reddish-brown color.

INSKEEP: And now the next stop is "Jurassic Park." Dinosaurs lived 65 million years ago or more, and this same technique might be used to conclude that T. rexs were that brownish color that you see in the movie or maybe something closer to Barney purple. This is NPR News.

Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.