How do we know what dinosaurs looked like?

A colorful dinosaur with feathers

Dinosaurs are eye-catchers in museums, strutting across our cinema screen and popular toy figures in the children’s room. They have an uncanny fascination for us. Our view of them is usually that of a gigantic reptile-like beings. They were extinct 66 million years ago, long before humans roamed Earth. So we can’t even know what dinosaurs looked like. Or can we?

In fact, we can only guess. The scientific basis for this is provided by paleontology, the science of living beings from the geological past. Paleontologists who specialize in dinosaurs research fossils. The also study their surviving descendants such as birds or closest relatives such as crocodiles. Then, they draw conclusions about what they looked like, how they lived and behaved.


Fossils are particularly important when it comes to the appearance of dinosaurs. If researchers find prints or well-preserved skeletal remains, they can recreate its skeleton. Thereby determine its shape and size. It becomes more difficult if we want to learn more about the nature and color of the skin.

In the past, researchers assumed that dinosaurs had scales, similar to today’s reptiles, due to skin marks in the rock. The pioneering discovery of the Archeopteryx in 1861 was the first indication that they could also be feathered. In 1996, researchers discovered a Sinosauropteryx fossil in China. The fossil had feather-like structures. Today we know that dinosaurs had scales, feathers or a mixture of all these traits.

How is it possible to learn about the color of a dinosaur?

The color of dinosaurs is also a mystery. For a long time, researchers could only make assumptions based on animals living today. For example, they assumed that herbivorous dinosaurs had earthy colors because, like today’s herbivores, they had to camouflage themselves.

New investigation methods enable more precise insights. In 2010, a research team from the University of Bristol examined a fossil of a feathered Sinosauropteryx. They found remains of the pigment types eumelanin and pheomelanin. Eumelanin provides brownish-black color, while pheomelanin is more of yellow to red shades. The team concluded that the Sinosauropteryx had a reddish brown and white striped tail.

Researchers still find dinosaur fossils from excavations around the world. After more than 150 years of research, the relationships between these fossils have largely been clarified. But researchers continue to discover new types of dinosaurs. For example, little bird-like dinosaurs that lived on trees in the jungle are still relatively unexplored.

Blockbuster films largely shape our view of dinosaurs today. But, in the Jurassic Park, for example, not all dinosaurs depicted correctly. The Velociraptor actually had feathers and was only as big as an emu. The marine reptile Mosasaurus also had a total length of 15 meters in reality. It was nowhere near as gigantic as in the film. If you want to experience dinosaurs in a more realistic for, it’s best to visit a natural history museum.


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