How Do We Know What Color the Dinosaurs Were?


Suraj Parida, Shen Pen Contributor

We all have our dinosaur-themed experiences that have filled our childhood. Dinosaurs have always been a topic of fascination for me. I have strong memories of reading dinosaur books and looking at pictures of dinosaurs and learning the different time periods each species existed in. Everyday before school I would turn on the tv and watch some Dinosaur Train which was one of my favorite tv shows as a kid. Even if you aren’t fascinated with dinosaurs, I think everybody has at least seen or heard of Jurassic Park. Through the consumption of these forms of media, many people, including myself, have had some curiosities about these creatures that lived tens of millions of years ago.

The colors of dinosaurs we see in books and movies are often based on the actual color of dinosaurs when they were alive. Through the studies of other animal fossils, such as bats, scientists have been able to use modern technology to examine fossil structures and make unique findings which allows scientists to determine the exact color of each dinosaur.

Scientists of the University of Bristol and Virginia Tech University were able to study two species of bat fossils, Palaeochiropteryx and Hassianycteris, which both lived 300 million to 20 million years ago. These studies showed that these bat fossils were so well preserved that they were able to retain melanosome structures. So, what color were these bats?

“Well bats are brown… It might not be a big surprise, but that’s what these 49 million year-old bats are. So they looked perfectly like modern bats,” said molecular paleobiologist Jakob Vinther of Britain’s University of Bristol. So, how do these findings compare to dinosaurs?

Molecular paleobiologist Jakob Vinther of Britain’s University of Bristol and his team have studied the microchemistry of fossils and have found the remnants of melanosome structures. Melanosomes contain melanin, the pigment that gives color to skin. Scientists can study the structure and shape of these melanosomes of the fossils to figure out what color each dinosaur actually was. “This means that the correlation of melanin colour to shape is an ancient invention, which we can use to easily determine colour from fossils by simply looking at the melanosomes shape, Dr. Vinther explains.

Caitlin Colleary, a Ph.D. student in geological studies at Virginia Tech University is the study’s lead author. Many have wondered if melanosome structures were always the characteristic used to determine dinosaur color. “Since so little is preserved in the fossil record, the color of extinct animals has always been left up to artists’ interpretations, and important information regarding behavior has been considered inaccessible,” Ms. Colleary said. This information confirms that dinosaurs’ color before modern technology was a result of the artists’ feeling and not necessarily on scientific findings, such as melanosome structure.

Color recognition was and still is an important part in the history of animals. The color of an animal can help determine its behavior as well. Based on the color of these dinosaurs, we can determine what environment they lived in, how they attracted mates and how they protected themself from predators. These characteristics are found in virtually every modern-day animal.

Colleary claims that we’re just scratching the surface in our ability to extract information from the fossil record. “As technology continues to advance, we’ll keep finding information in fossils that we don’t even know is there today,” she explains.

Works Cited
Hinckley, S. (2015, September 29). What color were dinosaurs really? Bat fossils reveal clues. The Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved 2023. 
How do we know what color dinosaurs were? (2016). TED-Ed. Retrieved 2023, from