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Dinosaur Camouflage

A recent study found evidence that an ankylosaur coloring was similar to the protective coloration we see in modern animals.

a leaf that looks like it has a camouflage pattern

Photo: Carolina Ödman (Flickr)

Two kinds of animal camouflage are termed as protective (allowing prey to hide) and aggressive (allowing a predator to sneak up on prey).

It’s easy to say that there are some things about the dinosaurs we’ll just never know like whether dinosaurs were camouflaged like modern animals or even what color they were, because all we have are their bones.

Many modern animals have protective coloration that makes them hard for predators to spot. Sometimes they are counter-shaded. They are dark on the top, and blend in with the ground when seen from above. They are light on the bottom, and blend in with the sky when seen from below.

But in 2017, an international team of paleontologists published evidence that a dinosaur, a kind of ankylosaur, did have protective coloration like modern animals. They were able to do this because they found a specimen that was much better preserved than the average fossil.

The specimen they found was quickly buried by fine marine sediments and due to environmental conditions was extremely well-preserved. What they found included much of the animal’s horny skin as well as bone.

Organic Residue

Sophisticated chemical analyses showed the fossilized skin contained traces of organic residues of what had once been the animal’s skin pigments.

The researchers found substantial amounts of benzothiazole, a breakdown product of the reddish pigment pheomelanin, and they think the dinosaur was reddish brown. Analysis of different parts of the body suggests counter-shading camouflage.

But like all findings surrounding the ancient past, if you’ll forgive the pun, the findings aren’t set in stone. There’s the possibility that the breakdown product could be from something else, and the dinosaur also had other pigments in its skin that the analysis didn’t detect.

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