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The color of a dinosaur can give us hints about where it lived

What do an extinct dinosaur and your dog have in common?

Jakob Vinther

Re-creating the colors of a dinosaur can help us figure out where and how it lived, say researchers who did just that for a so-called “parrot lizard” that lived in China more than 100 million years ago.

In dinosaurs, as in plenty of other animals, color patterns aren’t random. Coloring developed in part as a camouflage method to help animals hide from predators. In a study published today in Current Biology, scientists from the University of Bristol used specialized light-imaging techniques and 3D reconstruction to figure out what the creature would look like if it were still alive today — and what that can tell us about its habitat.

They found that the “parrot lizard” (or Psittacosaurus) was darker on top and lighter on the underside. This is called countershading and is very common — think of golden labs, or even sharks that are blue almost everywhere except their white bellies.

Other findings were more specific. The scientists also discovered that the chest and back of the hind legs were darker than the lower abdomen, and a big part of the dinosaur’s face was very dark, too.

So what does this mean? Countershading plays tricks on the eyes and tends to make objects look more flat, which makes them harder to see. It can also provide clues to how animals move around. An animal that moves on all fours, like a dog, is more likely to have just one light color on his hidden underside than an animal that moves on two legs and might need his more exposed stomach to be different light shades to blend in. Therefore, this dinosaur’s specific brand of countershading (darker on the chest than on the belly) tentatively suggests that it walked around on two legs.

The more specific pattern of dark and light shading on his backside suggests that this parrot lizard probably lived in a forest canopy. Forest canopies tend to have both shadowy places blocked by trees and light places, and so this dark-light mix would have been especially useful.

The dramatic black face is similar to masks that we see in animals, though we’re still not sure what the purpose is. Scientists are still doing research to see what more they can learn about this dinosaur, but in the meantime, here is the parrot lizard in all its colorful glory.