Julia Clarke

Research involving the pigmentation of dinosaurs has led researchers at UT to link prehistoric evolution to color.

Julia Clarke, an associate professor in the Jackson School of Geosciences, collaborated with a research team spanning across seven universities to study similarities between living organisms and extinct animals, and found that evolutionary shifts followed changes in the species’ color.

“I’m excited,” Clarke said. “When we started this work we never imagined that trying to figure out aspects of color would lead us to potentially learn something new about dinosaur physiology.”

The research compares the hair, skin and feathers of living terrestrial vertebrates and fossil specimens to find relations in levels of melanin, the pigmented tissue within organisms that determines color, and melanosomes, the organelles that hold melanin.

“Living mammals and birds uniquely show a relationship between the shape of melanosomes and their color — it’s what colors our hair,” Clarke said. “Genes that are involved in melanin-based color are also involved in many other aspects of physiology, like food intake and aspects of reproduction.”

Anthropology professor John Kappelman said the study, which was published in scientific journal “Nature” on Thursday, is expanding the scientific community’s ability to classify the physical characteristics of dinosaurs.

“These results are really exciting because it gives paleontologists one more tool that can be used to study the physiology of extinct species and reconstruct their color,” Kappelman said. “So, unfortunately, Tyrannosaurus rex — while a very colorful character — probably did not have vibrant colors.”

Additionally, the research assists in identifying which dinosaur species were warm-blooded or cold-blooded by comparing similar melanin diversity between living species and extinct specimens, according to integrative biology professor David Cannatella.  

“We know that birds — which are living dinosaurs — are endothermic, or warm-blooded,” Cannatella said. “Whether extinct dinosaurs that are closely related to birds were endothermic or not has been debated for decades, so this work is highly significant as evidence that supports endothermy in this extinct group of dinosaurs.”

Clarke said the study leaves more work ahead to prove their hypothesis linking evolution and color change.

“We are continuing our work in this area,” Clarke said. “We will be looking at more fossils and also hope that more research on the melanin in living vertebrates may also illuminate the hypothesis we’ve put forth.”

A scientific discovery is causing researchers to believe many dinosaurs may have had a feather-like covering. Julia Clarke, paleontologist and associate geology professor, spoke about new discoveries at Friday’s “Hot Science — Cool Talks” lecture series hosted by the Environmental Science Institute to involve the public and K-12 students and educators in current science topics. “For as long as we’ve known about dinosaurs, we’ve wondered about their appearance, we’ve speculated and colored them different hues and put patterns on them, but we haven’t had a sense of what they looked like in many ways,” Clarke said. A dinosaur by definition actually includes contemporary birds and only certain animals that we traditionally think of as dinosaurs. Based on how closely related they are on an evolutionary time scale, researchers can now determine how they looked, Clarke said. “The possibility that all dinosaurs had some filamentous or bristles has really become a realistic idea,” Clarke said. A Chinese farmer found a fossilized dinosaur in 1996 that shows signs of feather-like filaments, Clarke said. New knowledge of how pigment-producing organelles work, called melanosomes, is furthering knowledge about the animals’ actual coloring. Stephen Brueggerhoff, programs manager for the Institute said the event brings many different people from the community. “We get a lot of families out. They’ve got to know that science isn’t daunting; science can be fun,” Brueggerhoff said. Austin resident Dabney Rigby brought her 9-year-old son and dinosaur fan, Tobias, to the event. “When we found out about this, we knew we had to come,” Rigby said. Deborah Salzberg, institute education coordinator, said the lecture series helps engage the community and develop a deeper interest in science. “Anytime you can take a topic that is extremely accessible and that is extremely well known, like dinosaurs, and add a new scientific element to make people look at it in a new way, it reinvigorates their interest, not only in that topic but in science in general,” Salzberg said.

A scientific discovery is causing researchers to believe many dinosaurs may have had a feather-like covering. Julia Clarke, paleontologist and associate geology professor, spoke about new discoveries at Friday’s “Hot Science — Cool Talks” lecture series hosted by the Environmental Science Institute to involve the public and K-12 students and educators in current science topics. “For as long as we’ve known about dinosaurs, we’ve wondered about their appearance, we’ve speculated and colored them different hues and put patterns on them, but we haven’t had a sense of what they looked like in many ways,” Clarke said. A dinosaur by definition actually includes contemporary birds and only certain animals that we traditionally think of as dinosaurs. Based on how closely related they are on an evolutionary time scale, researchers can now determine how they looked, Clarke said. “The possibility that all dinosaurs had some filamentous or bristles has really become a realistic idea,” Clarke said. A Chinese farmer found a fossilized dinosaur in 1996 that shows signs of feather-like filaments, Clarke said. New knowledge of how pigment-producing organelles work, called melanosomes, is furthering knowledge about the animals’ actual coloring. Stephen Brueggerhoff, programs manager for the Institute said the event brings many different people from the community. “We get a lot of families out. They’ve got to know that science isn’t daunting; science can be fun,” Brueggerhoff said. Austin resident Dabney Rigby brought her 9-year-old son and dinosaur fan, Tobias, to the event. “When we found out about this, we knew we had to come,” Rigby said. Deborah Salzberg, institute education coordinator, said the lecture series helps engage the community and develop a deeper interest in science. “Anytime you can take a topic that is extremely accessible and that is extremely well known, like dinosaurs, and add a new scientific element to make people look at it in a new way, it reinvigorates their interest, not only in that topic but in science in general,” Salzberg said.

A scientific discovery is causing researchers to believe many dinosaurs may have had a feather-like covering. Julia Clarke, paleontologist and associate geology professor, spoke about new discoveries at Friday’s “Hot Science — Cool Talks” lecture series hosted by the Environmental Science Institute to involve the public and K-12 students and educators in current science topics. “For as long as we’ve known about dinosaurs, we’ve wondered about their appearance, we’ve speculated and colored them different hues and put patterns on them, but we haven’t had a sense of what they looked like in many ways,” Clarke said. A dinosaur by definition actually includes contemporary birds and only certain animals that we traditionally think of as dinosaurs. Based on how closely related they are on an evolutionary time scale, researchers can now determine how they looked, Clarke said. “The possibility that all dinosaurs had some filamentous or bristles has really become a realistic idea,” Clarke said. A Chinese farmer found a fossilized dinosaur in 1996 that shows signs of feather-like filaments, Clarke said. New knowledge of how pigment-producing organelles work, called melanosomes, is furthering knowledge about the animals’ actual coloring. Stephen Brueggerhoff, programs manager for the Institute said the event brings many different people from the community. “We get a lot of families out. They’ve got to know that science isn’t daunting; science can be fun,” Brueggerhoff said. Austin resident Dabney Rigby brought her 9-year-old son and dinosaur fan, Tobias, to the event. “When we found out about this, we knew we had to come,” Rigby said. Deborah Salzberg, institute education coordinator, said the lecture series helps engage the community and develop a deeper interest in science. “Anytime you can take a topic that is extremely accessible and that is extremely well known, like dinosaurs, and add a new scientific element to make people look at it in a new way, it reinvigorates their interest, not only in that topic but in science in general,” Salzberg said.

A scientific discovery is causing researchers to believe many dinosaurs may have had a feather-like covering. Julia Clarke, paleontologist and associate geology professor, spoke about new discoveries at Friday’s “Hot Science — Cool Talks” lecture series hosted by the Environmental Science Institute to involve the public and K-12 students and educators in current science topics. “For as long as we’ve known about dinosaurs, we’ve wondered about their appearance, we’ve speculated and colored them different hues and put patterns on them, but we haven’t had a sense of what they looked like in many ways,” Clarke said. A dinosaur by definition actually includes contemporary birds and only certain animals that we traditionally think of as dinosaurs. Based on how closely related they are on an evolutionary time scale, researchers can now determine how they looked, Clarke said. “The possibility that all dinosaurs had some filamentous or bristles has really become a realistic idea,” Clarke said. A Chinese farmer found a fossilized dinosaur in 1996 that shows signs of feather-like filaments, Clarke said. New knowledge of how pigment-producing organelles work, called melanosomes, is furthering knowledge about the animals’ actual coloring. Stephen Brueggerhoff, programs manager for the Institute said the event brings many different people from the community. “We get a lot of families out. They’ve got to know that science isn’t daunting; science can be fun,” Brueggerhoff said. Austin resident Dabney Rigby brought her 9-year-old son and dinosaur fan, Tobias, to the event. “When we found out about this, we knew we had to come,” Rigby said. Deborah Salzberg, institute education coordinator, said the lecture series helps engage the community and develop a deeper interest in science. “Anytime you can take a topic that is extremely accessible and that is extremely well known, like dinosaurs, and add a new scientific element to make people look at it in a new way, it reinvigorates their interest, not only in that topic but in science in general,” Salzberg said.