Fossil is first dinosaur to display camouflage markings.
Photograph by Jakob Vinther, University of Bristol
Researchers believe a small plant-eating dinosaur, about the size of a golden retriever, used a camouflage color scheme to confuse its predators, as it roamed the prehistoric forests, according to an article on nationalgeographic.com.
Calling the fossil “unique,” Jakob Vinther of the University of Bristol, who is a co-author on the study published in the journal Current Biology about the find, said the evidence showed clearly that the fossil had color patterns.
A number of modern-day animals use the dark and light zones of body markings to attempt to hide in plain sight from their predators, but the researchers say this it the first time markings of this kind had been found on a dinosaur fossil.
The well-preserved fossil has a brown back and a lighter belly area, which makes the animal seem flatter to predators, who, if they were the same as today’s predators, would use the shading to determine the size of the prey.
The well-dressed reptile was known as a Psittacosaurus, also called a “parrot-lizard,” and had a beaked jaw with stubby spikes in its cheeks. The fossil also revealed the animal had quills along its tail, similar to bristles on a toothbrush.
The fossil was uncovered in China and is estimated to have lived around 120 million years ago.
Another unique discovery made along with the fossil is that it appears to be in the act of pooping. Sticking out from the fossil’s bottom is a log-shaped object, similar to dog poop. The researchers say it could possibly be a bone, but it contains fecal matter and, while they don’t believe the animal died in the act, they surmise the intestinal gases continued to push the material out after the parrot-lizard died.
The reptile also had dark markings on its legs, according to the scientists, and they could have helped to keep insects away, much like the markings on a zebra’s legs today. Spots on the skin on the front legs may have used the toughening qualities of pigments to harden the front skin as well.
While feathered dinosaurs have been known to have very colorful plumage, Vinther says this specimen had scales instead. He adds, “This is definitely the best specimen, the Holy Grail for naked dinosaurs.”