Scientists reconstruct the colour patterns of the pet-sized Psittacosaurus, producing what they believe is the most accurate 3D model of a dinosaur so far. Matthew Stock reports.
This little dinosaur could have made an easy meal for meat-eaters. But its colour and camouflage pattern may have helped the Psittacosaurus (pronounced sit-TAK-ah-sawr-us) go unnoticed for longer. This countershading pattern serves to conceal shadows cast on its body, making it appear flatter and less conspicuous. Scientists in Britain reconstructed this model using a particularly good fossil specimen - complete with preserved skin pigment. (SOUNDBITE) (English) DR JAKOB VINTHER, SENIOR LECTURER AT UNIVERSITY OF BRISTOL, SAYING: "Getting exceptional preservation and being able to tell colours in a fossil is really unique. Usually you only get the hard parts preserved, such as bone or shell. But under exceptional circumstances we can be lucky and find soft tissues and also these pigments preserved." They used an unpainted model to find out how light hit parts of the body in different environments. (SOUNDBITE) (English) DR JAKOB VINTHER, SENIOR LECTURER AT UNIVERSITY OF BRISTOL, SAYING: "And we took this model out, which was just painted grey, and looked at how the shadows were cast on to this model under the different light conditions and then compare it to what we see in the fossil." They found shadows cast from diffused light - such as on a forest floor - closely matched the counter-shading on the fossilised skin. (SOUNDBITE) (English) DR JAKOB VINTHER, SENIOR LECTURER AT UNIVERSITY OF BRISTOL, SAYING: "So what is really nice now is we have this diffused light that we would expect to see in a forest. And it's very nice because you can actually see here the transition in the shadow actually almost perfectly matches the transition from dark to light that we have here on the belly as well as on the tail there." Researchers believe the Labrador-sized Psittacosaurus must have lived in a forest habitat, in what is now northern China, about 120 million years ago. The bipedal plant-eater would have faced a constant threat from predators. But quickly evolving camouflage may have helped it save its own skin for longer.