What colour was Anchiornis?

If you have been keeping up with recent research on feathered dinosaurs (or even if you haven’t, this was everywhere for a while) you will know that several teams have published papers describing the colours of the feathers of various dinosaurs. Those with good memories or a strong interest will probably know that Anchiornis was revealed to have been predominantly back (or at least, very dark) with splashes of orange (or reddy colours).

However, it would I think be premature to assume that this is necessarily the right, or perhaps better, only answer. What we really know is that one Anchiornis specimen was black and orange at the time it died (assuming there are no taphonomic or other issues). Even people exceptionally unfamiliar with the basics of ecology or ornithology should be able to recognise this potential problem. There are lots of reasons to think that not all Anchiornis were this colour, and not all of the time.

At the bare minimum we might expect differences within the species as there will always be some differences in colour and patterning. The morphology of the bones might be identical between different species that were otherwise distinguished by their feather patterns or behaviour (as with the pheasants example I gave recently) that and thus are effectively invisible in the fossil record. There could always be local differences across the range of the species (some might live in forests and others in open areas or have different predators etc.). Far more simply though, it would be a surprise if males and females were truly identical in plumage, if juveniles had the same patterns as adults or if there were no changes over the seasons with moults.

In short, the research is exciting and interesting and the wealth of new ‘accurate’ reconstructions of Anchiornis are great. But for this and other feathered dinosaurs, this really not rule out other variations and combinations of colours from being wrong or being suggested. I’d be most surprised if future work didn;t reveal other patterns and colours for other specimens of the same fossil taxon. Equally, I’d be wary of inferring too much from one specimen – the present pattern can;t be used to infer much about the beahviour of the animal when we don’t know if it was male or female, in breeding season or not, in a summer or winter coat or even midway between them.

8 Responses to “What colour was Anchiornis?”


  1. 1 Matt Martyniuk 26/04/2010 at 4:39 pm

    Since Anchiornis is known from several specimens with preserved feathers, this would be an interesting thing to test for. Is anybody planning on repeating Vinther et al.’s study with other Anchi specimens? Like you said, it would be more interesting if they all turned out to have the same coloration than if one or two turned out to be mottled brown and therefore (presumably) female or juvenile. Or if the colors differed enough where we could recognize the first fossil vertebrate species diagnosed by coloration rather than skeletal characters!

    • 2 David Hone 26/04/2010 at 4:54 pm

      Well I’d like to do it! I know a bunch of samples have been taken from a number of Liaoning specimens by more than one team but I don’t know who has got what exactly though. My guess is there is at least one more Anchiornis has been collected at least.

      Of course even with multiple species, people don’t like doing destructive sampling and understandably are right now more interested in getting as many species as possible that sampling one several times.

  2. 3 adam yates 26/04/2010 at 5:35 pm

    Pity, really.
    Variation within a species actually would be more interesting than a catalogue of different taxa. Confuciusornis would be perfect, it has an enormous sample size so surely we can destructively sample a few? Maybe some with tail streamers and some without. Are the ‘enstreamered’ individuals breeding males? might they have brighter or bolder colouration? I’m sure it will be done sooner or later.

    • 4 David Hone 26/04/2010 at 6:04 pm

      Oh it will be done, but by who and when and using what specimens is the question.

    • 5 David Hone 26/04/2010 at 6:13 pm

      Extra thought: if you are doing multiple specimens of 1 taxon, would be best to have it from 1 horizon of 1 locality. Getting that information for much of the Liaoning material is likely impossible annoyingly.

  3. 6 ChozoBoy 27/04/2010 at 4:26 am

    How long until we get a Microraptor palette? :)

  4. 7 Matt Martyniuk 27/04/2010 at 7:19 am

    “Are the ‘enstreamered’ individuals breeding males?”

    Latest word on this was that it’s probably due to ontogeny, not sexual dimorphism, with the streamer feathers appearing in the most mature individuals of both sexes. But I’m sure that’s not the final word on the issue.


  1. 1 Blog Carnival #19: New Blogs, Ichythyosaurs, Bacteria, Comic Strips and More... | Dinosaur Tracking Trackback on 03/05/2010 at 10:49 pm

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