Scientists studied a small feathered dinosaur, called Sinosauropteryx, and found relevant facts about its camouflage pattern that included a bandit mask similar to the traits of the current American raccoon. Thanks to the discovery, they can also tell the type of environment where these creatures inhabited.

The small Sinosauropteryx is a cousin of the big and ferocious Tyrannosaurus but much smaller. It became the first dinosaur with feathers, according to the scientists, which makes it more evident that birds are the evolutionary descendants of dinosaurs.

Feathered dinosaur, Dinosaur similar racoon, Sinosauropteryx camouflage
A drawing of the Sinosauropteryx and the environment where it lived. Image credit: Robert Nicholls

As well, scientists could also tell thanks to its color pattern that the Sinosauropteryx probably lived in open savannahs instead of forests.

“Our results show how reconstructing the color of extinct animals can inform on their ecologies beyond what may be obvious from skeletal remains alone,” the study authors wrote.

The Sinosauropteryx looked like a skinny version of raccoon mixed with a turkey

Thanks to technology, scientists have rapidly advanced in the study of many creatures including those that no longer exist, as is the case of the dinosaurs. This time, paleontologists from the University of Bristol in England, studied the three Sinosauropteryx specimens. They analyzed its coloring by scrutinizing its feathers; a trait scientists hadn’t found in dinosaurs.

According to their research, which was published Thursday in the journal Current Biology, the Sinosauropteryx was a theropod dinosaur. It measured about 3.5 feet (1 meter) long, so it was quite small. It had two legs and short arms with large thumbs and a very long tail. This dinosaur had tiny, sharp teeth, and ate little vertebrates like small lizards. Because of their size, they had to avoid being eaten by other predators.

These creatures were covered in feathers, though these were very primitive, fuzzy and lacked structure. They could not fly. These turkey-sized carnivores lived in the early Cretaceous period, as part of what’s known as the Jehol Biota, about 130 to 120 million years ago in China.

What amazed the scientists is that the Sinosauropteryx had a camouflage pattern of dark colors on its back  something like brownish-red feathers  while the colors of its belly were very light, probably white. It also had a bandit mask similar to the raccoon. The feathers of the face were connected over the top of the skull to more dark feathers on the back.

“It would have looked like a skinny version of a raccoon mixed with a turkey,” said University of Bristol molecular paleobiologist Jakob Vinther.

Dinosaurs’ color patterns help scientists understand these creatures

The ability of scientists to identify the color patterns of the different dinosaurs have eased the understanding of these extinct animals.

Camouflage patterns protected dinosaurs just as they protect modern animals that live in open environments like the gazelles in the savannah.

Feathered dinosaur, Dinosaur similar racoon, Sinosauropteryx camouflage
A fossil of a Sinosauropteryx and an interpretative drawing of its bones. Image credit: University of Bristol

“The color patterns we found are all known to be associated with camouflage in modern animals, and so it is likely that Sinosauropteryx was under strong predation pressure as well as needing to hide from its own prey. It was likely both the hunter and the hunted,” said Fiann Smithwick, a doctoral student at the University of Bristol and lead author of the study. “It shows that the world of dinosaurs wasn’t so crazily far from what we could imagine today”.

Sinosauropteryx’s countershading

Scientists say that Sinosauropteryx’s camouflage patterns are called countershading, and it helped these creatures to blend in with the background. As well, thanks to the color of its feathers, scientists say that this extinct animal probably lived in a savannah.

Scientists say that countershading patterns are more common in such environments. In savannahs, the transition of colors changes drastically from dark to light, while for the forest animals who have countershading patterns, the transition is more gradual.

“The insight that small theropods like Sinosauropteryx may have inhabited open habitats helps build a clearer picture of the environment in which the Jehol animals lived,” the authors wrote. “Jehol clearly was not only rich taxonomically, but was also likely varied in the habitats available to animals and consisted of a mosaic of environments, which may explain the area’s extraordinary biodiversity.”

The raccoon-like trait on the face of the Sinosauropteryx, on the other hand, also had certain advantages. In birds  which descended from dinosaurs  a bandit mask help them obscure the eyes. Predators look for eyes, and since it is harder to find them due to the bandit mask, they have a sort of protection from predators.

The Sinosauropteryx is not the sole discovered dinosaur with a countershading pattern; however, it is the only one with feathers.

Scientists still don’t know exactly why the Sinosauropteryx had feathers. They were not for flying. They could have been a trait to show off to mates or that help them stay warm.

The Sinosauropteryx was first discovered in 1996 to show that dinosaurs can also have feathers.

Source: Los Angeles Times