Particle Accelerator Will Examine The Color Of Dinosaur Skin

What if they were purple polka-dotted?

There’s a dinosaur in line to go into the particle accelerator in Saskatchewan, Canada. An almost perfectly three-dimensional hadrosaur head is set to undergo an analysis that may reveal its color.

If the search works, this would be the first time anyone has found color in dinosaur skin, Philip Currie, a University of Alberta paleontologist who is working on the project, tells Popular Science. During the last few years, paleontologists have found melanosomes, the organelles in living cells that are responsible for certain colors, in dinosaur feather fossils. But colors haven’t been found in skin fossils.

“It’s not that these older specimens don’t have melanosomes,” Currie says. “Nobody’s really looked for them.”

Hadrosaurs are duck-billed dinosaurs that lived 100 million to 65 million years ago. A University of Alberta team found this fossil, dated at 70 million years old, last year, near Grande Prairie, Alberta. The fossil is so well preserved—for example, it still retains almost all of its original shape and hasn’t been flattened, as many fossils have—Currie hopes molecules that give it color and other molecules are preserved, too.

The Canadian Light Source synchrotron in Saskatchewan will help Currie and his team look for traces of molecules that are too slight to find using more traditional paleontology analyses, such as chemical analyses, Currie says. (The team will conduct those more traditional analyses, too.)

Canadian Light Source scientists will place pieces of the fossil in the path of a beam of infrared light. Light reflecting off the sample will make the chemical bonds in the sample vibrate at different frequencies, which the scientists will use to determine what molecules are present in the sample. They are able to distinguish melanosomes, which provide white, black and reddish brown colors; pigments, which provide other colors; fats; sugars and proteins, among other molecules.

Besides color, researchers may also be able to find what types of plants the hadrosaur ate. “There are probably no surprises. Hadrosaurs were clearly herbivores,” Currie says. “But it’s always worth checking these things.”