Sinosauropteryx prima (reconstruction). Based on fossils from China. Early Cretaceous, 130 - 125 million years ago.
- James Reece
- © Australian Museum
The discovery of Sinosauropteryx prima in 1996 was one of the most important fossil finds of the century. It was the first non-avian dinosaur found with feather-like structures, providing further evidence for the link between dinosaurs and birds. Its name means 'first Chinese lizard wing'.
In a 2010 paper published online in Nature, a team of scientists from China and the UK revealed that Sinosauropteryx probably had ginger-coloured feathers and a striped tail.
The team first studied fossils of an ancient bird Confuciusornis (which lived during the Cretaceous) by using an electron microscope to look inside the feathers for microscopic structures called melanosomes. In living animals, melanosomes contain melanin, a pigment which gives colour to human and animal hair and is the most common way that colours are produced in feathers. Different shaped melanosomes produce different colours - blacks or greys are produced by 'sausage-shaped' melanosomes, and reddish shades come from spherical ones.
Finding melanosomes in Confuciusornis indicated that extinct animals probably also had similar structures for pigmentation, and that similar-shaped structures may have produced colourings like those found in living animals.
Using these results, the scientists then analysed Sinosauropteryx. They concluded that the bands of dark and light along the tail were in fact ginger and white stripes - the first evidence of original colour of feathers in dinosaurs.