Parrot-lizard fossil find is the ‘Holy Grail for naked dinosaurs’

15 Sep 2016

Psittacosaurus photographed in the Bristol Botanic Garden. Image via Jakob Vinther

A fossil of a plant-eating dinosaur in China is being described as the “Holy Grail of naked dinosaurs” by a team of researchers as it is the first to show evidence of complex 3D camouflage.

Estimated to have lived over 120m years ago, the fossil contained the remains of a reptilian species known as a Psittacosaurus, or in modern-day English, a parrot-lizard.

About the size of a golden retriever dog, this species of dinosaur would have been distinguished by the four stubby spikes that protrude from its cheeks and chin, as well as a beak that gives it its peculiar name.

Now, according to National Geographic, this particular fossil has revealed a wealth of information on the creature’s skin as it is the first known example of a two-toned dinosaur able to camouflage itself from predators.

By examining the fossil, a team of researchers from the University of Bristol (UB) were able to see that its back was a dark brown colour, but on its belly was a much lighter brown.

It was also covered in a number of spots and stripes, to further confuse any potential threats.

Looking at modern-day animals that use this type of colour scheme, this effect – referred to as countershading – could make the dinosaur appear flatter than it actually is, thereby making it look less of a tasty meal.

Caught in the act

This camouflage would have been crucial to the Psittacosaurus’s chance of survival given that two of the region’s biggest predators included two T-rex-like dinosaurs, Yutyrannus and Dilong.

The UB team noticed another peculiarity with this particular fossil. Something was protruding from its rear that at first glance could be considered a bone, but its composition suggested faecal matter.

Based on the decay of the animal, the team don’t think that it happened to die while defecating. It was more likely ejected from the animal as gases created during its post-death decay forced it out.

The end result of all this research – now published in the journal Current Biology – was the construction of perhaps one of the most accurate dinosaur models ever created.

On the importance of this find, the head of the UB research team, palaeontologist Jakob Vinther described it as “the Holy Grail for naked dinosaurs”.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic