Step aside Jurassic Park’s T. rex: there’s a new top prehistoric model on the scene.
Researchers at the University of Bristol have teamed up with palaeoartist Bob Nicholls to make the most accurate life-sized model of a dinosaur ever.
By scrutinising an incredibly well preserved 120 million-year-old fossil of a Psittacosaurus, a small dinosaur about the size of a turkey that was an early relative of the Triceratops, the team were able to pick out small structures in its skin called melanosomes. These carry melanin pigments, which are what give feathers and skin their colour. From these pigments, the team could determine that the dinosaur sported a common camouflage pattern known as countershading, meaning the skin is darker on top than on the underside.
"Our Psittacosaurus was reconstructed from the inside-out,” says Nicholls. “There are thousands of scales, all different shapes and sizes, and many of them are only partially pigmented. It was a painstaking process but we now have the best suggestion as to what this dinosaur really looked like."
Furthermore, by photographing their model in different locations in the Cretaceous plant section of the Bristol Botanic Garden and analysing the effectiveness of the camouflage, the team were able to determine where the animal was likely to have lived.
"We predicted that the Psittacosaurus must have lived in a forest,” says researcher Jakob Vinther. “This demonstrates that fossil colour patterns can provide not only a better picture of what extinct animals looked like, but also give new clues about extinct ecologies and habitats. We were amazed to see how well these colour patterns actually worked to camouflage this little dinosaur."