Sometimes some very odd thoughts can cross your mind when you have time on your hands and this is one of them in my case – why are there so few dinosaurs illustrated in black and white. I don’t mean a black and white illustration – there are thousands of them - I mean the actual patterns and colours of the animal. The only one I can think of off the top of my head is Luis Rey‘s pictured theirizinosaur (though of course I might have missed plenty or simply can’t remember ones I have seen) and when you think about it, it was probably common in at least some archosaurian taxa.
Of course there are some strong biases, but below is an off the top of my head list of black and white species (common names only, and British one at that, and not very specific in many cases, I’m not going into too much detail just for this example). I am sticking strictly to those with black and white only, not the often off white-yellow that many animals put with black (or the list would be much longer and feature gannets, leopard geckos, spectacled bears and more) or silver and black (which is true for very many fishes), though I will allow a bit of colour in keratineous beaks and feet in places (and of course cryptic UV displays in birds, and some blacks are perhps closer to greys and dark browns, but I have tried to avoif it – hmmm, this is quite a list of exceptions). Anyway, in the order in which I wrote them down:
Zorrila & skunks, orcas and pilot whlaes (+ others), various badgers, penguins, zebra, a great many seabirds (gulls, albatross, oystercatcher, pelicans etc.), many raptors, lemurs (indri, shifaka, ruffed), monkeys (e.g. colobus, some tamarins), Malayan tapir, snowy owls, panda, magpie, snowflake moray, humbugs (a reef fish), storks, minature hornbills, several aracari, at least two dogfish, monitor lizard, krait, some geckos, porcupine, snow leopard, convict cichlids.
Quite a list really all things considered, and it covers a huge variety of vertebrates. There are some obvious reasons for being black and white which I will touch on, but I would point out that across the list as a whole, there is a huge variety of patterns (spots, stripes, bands, bars, rosettes and general swarthes of dots and scales) in addition to the variety of taxa, environments, ecology and habits of the animals included. So, why be black and white?
The most obvious immediate answer is contrast, quite simply, you can’t get a better disparity of colours than these two if you tried and that makes them stand out against each other (especially at night e.g. the zorilla) and against a great many backgrounds. This can work as camoflage in a prodominently white background (like snowy owls, or countershading in penguins), or as warnings in non-white ones (like the krait), or just to be easily spotted in terms of advertising (like male colobus) or social signalling (zebras). However, obvious as these are they certainly can’t explain all of them.
Not that I have read up on them in detail (becuase this ‘short’ post has gotten way out of hand and I wanted to talk about dinosaur art) but why the hell are tapirs so patterned for example? They are solitary, avoid sunlight like the plague (it actually gives them severe cataracts), spend a lot of time in water, only really have leopards as predators, do not have camoflage (unlike their offspring) have no real need to signal anything (including offspring who can follow mum’s black behind with no problems) or anything else I can think of easily. Why are so many seabirds in black and white? Countershading is the obvious answer, but then why not blue and white or grey and white – why black? It might help with heat exchange (balck really helps you warm up) but again, this can’t explain the variety of patterns or the variety of species in whcih the blakc and white patterns occur.
Right enough of that for now. Back to the palaeoart. I hope I have shown a fair number of reasons why an archosaur might have been black and white, and demonstrated that it occurs in all kinds of vertebrates (anyone know of a good amphibian example?) living all kinds of lives in all kinds of environments. So the next palaeoartist who drops in here (and I do know of a couple) might want to think about some more monochrome archosaurs in their next piece.