(CN) – Scientists analyzing the fossils of a small, feathered dinosaur have found that it used multiple types of camouflage to both avoid predators and sneak up on its prey, much like some mammals and birds living today.
First discovered in China in 1996, Sinosauropteryx was the first dinosaur – outside of ancient birds and their immediate relatives – to be found with feathers.
In a report published Thursday in the journal Current Biology, researchers show how the dinosaur’s fuzzy, primitive and unstructured feathers helped it to avoid being eaten by larger meat-eating dinos, including relatives of Tyrannosaurus rex.
“Far from all being the lumbering prehistoric grey beasts of past children’s books, at least some dinosaurs showed sophisticated color patterns to hide from and confuse predators, just like today’s animals,” said lead author Fiann Smithwick, a researcher at the University of Bristol in Britain.
“Vision was likely very important in dinosaurs, just like today’s birds, and so it is not surprising that they evolved elaborate color patterns.”
The team mapped out the distribution of Sinosauropteryx’s dark, pigmented feathers, which revealed some distinctive color patterns. These feather patterns can also be found in modern animals.
One of the patterns involved a dark stripe around its eyes, which resembles a bandit mask. This feature is also seen in modern birds, and it helps conceal their eyes from would-be predators.
The dinosaur also featured a striped tail that may have been used to baffle both predators and prey.
“Dinosaurs might be weird in our eyes, but their color patterns very much resemble modern counterparts,” said senior author Jakob Vinther, a paleobiologist at the University of Bristol. “They had excellent vision, were fierce predators and would have evolved camouflage patterns like we see in living mammals and birds.”
Sinosauropteryx also had a “counter-shaded” pattern with a light belly and a dark back, which many modern animals use to make their bodies appear flatter, preventing them from standing out in their habitats.
“By reconstructing the color of these long-extinct dinosaurs, we have gained a better understanding of not only how they behaved and possible predator-prey dynamics, but also the environments in which they lived,” Smithwick said.
“This highlights how paleocolor reconstructions can tell us things not possible from looking at just the bones of these animals.”