Ancient Discovery: Oldest Red Pigment Found in 130 Million-Year-Old Feather Reveals Dinosaur Coloration

A new breakthrough could enable us to tell what colour dinosaurs were based on their fossils.

Researchers have pinpointed the oldest known example of beta-keratin – a common red-orange pigment – in a 130-million-year-old bird feather fossil.

The fossil of the extinct Eoconfuciusornis bird was collected from the Early Cretaceous lake deposits in Hebei, northern China.

The fossil of the extinct Eoconfuciusornis bird was collected from the Early Cretaceous lake deposits in Hebei, northern China

The fossil of the extinct Eoconfuciusornis bird was collected from the Early Cretaceous lake deposits in Hebei, northern China

The study could enable us to tell what colour feathered dinosaurs were. Some researchers believe Tyrannosaurus rex even had feathers (illustrated)

The study could enable us to tell what colour feathered dinosaurs were. Some researchers believe Tyrannosaurus rex even had feathers (illustrated)

The fossil of the extinct Eoconfuciusornis bird examined in the study was collected from the Early Cretaceous lake deposits in Hebei, northern China

The fossil of the extinct Eoconfuciusornis bird examined in the study was collected from the Early Cretaceous lake deposits in Hebei, northern China

The team applied immunogold – a staining technique used in electron microscopy – to identify proteins.

Their study found fossil evidence of feather structural protein beta-keratin.

‘Multiple independent analyses of both microbodies and associated matrix recovered from the fossil feathers confirm that these microbodies are indeed melanosomes,’ said Dr. Pan Yanhong from Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology and corresponding author of the research paper.

The findings could open up the possibility of discovering the true colours of other early birds and dinosaurs by examining the structure of their feathers for pigment proteins.

Dinosaur fossil is well preserved and in classic “dead dinosaur pose” indicating it was in death throes after being rapidly buried.

The research was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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