The Colors of Dinosaurs Open a New Window to Study the Past
by Riley Black Smithsonian.com
On December 9, 1833, the English fossil collector Elizabeth Philpot sent a letter to naturalist William Buckland. In addition to requesting back some vertebrae of a marine reptile Buckland had borrowed, Philpot also included notes on a recent trip with a young upstart fossil hound—the pioneering paleontologist Mary Anning. But what made the note special was an illustration Philpot had included with the letter. It depicted the toothy smile of an Ichthyosaurus skull, drawn after one of the many such fossils that Philpot, her sisters and Anning were finding in the ancient rocks of England’s southern coast. And it wasn’t drawn in any ordinary ink. The sepia tones were made from the preserved ink of a squid-like creature found in the same deposits as the ichthyosaur, revitalized after 200 million years.
On the surface, Philpot’s drawing might only seem to be a neat fossiliferous trick. In 2009, another drawing made from ancient ink kicked up renewed attention for the surprising fact that traces of prehistoric color could persist to the 21st century. But the fact that such primordial shades can be recovered at all opens up a realm of scientific possibility. With the right specimens, experts can start to color in the fossil record.