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15/09/2016 - The Turkey Among Dinosaurs

Frankfurt, 09/15/2016. An international team surrounding Senckenberg scientist Dr. Gerald Mayr has examined soft tissue structures of an exceptionally well-preserved fossil of the Cretaceous dinosaur Psittacosaurus. Using a new technology, the researchers around the ornithologist from Frankfurt were able to describe previously unknown details of this small dinosaur’s tail bristles. For the first time, these integumental structures are being compared with the “beard” of turkeys and other bristle-like structures in present-day birds and identified as evolutionary precursors of modern feathers. In addition, the scientists were able to show that the dinosaur’s dorsal side was darker in color than its underside, which they interpret as a camouflage coloration in closed forest habitats. The associated studies have been published in the scientific journals “Palaeontology” and “Current Biology.”

Modell des untersuchten Dinosauriers aus der Kreidezeit. Deutlich zu erkennen sind die langen Schwanzborsten und die Färbung.  © Jakob Vinther/Robert Nicholls
Model of the examined dinosaur from the
Cretaceous. The long tail bristles and the coloration
are clearly visible. © Jakob Vinther/Robert Nicholls

Arguably the most noteworthy trait of the Psittacosaurus fossil from China on display in the Senckenberg Nature Museum are the long, bristle-like structures on its tail. “We have now examined this detail more closely, using a new method –laser-stimulated fluorescence imaging,” explains Dr. Gerald Mayr of the Senckenberg Research Institute, and he continues, “Our studies clearly show that these bristles actually represent integumental structures.”

In the study, published in the scientific journal “Palaeontology,” Mayr and his colleagues compare these appendages to the bristle-like “beard” found on the chest of present-day turkeys and the spine on the forecrown of the screamers, a primitive family related to the ducks and geese.” To date, it has been controversial among experts whether the bristles of Psittacosaurus are comparable to the feathers of modern birds. The comparison with the turkey bristles shows that the fossil skin appendages can be considered evolutionary precursors of feathers,” adds Mayr.

© Senckenberg
The tail bristles of the Psittacosaurus fossil
from the Senckenberg Nature Museum were
recently examined using a new method and
were identified as dermal structures. © Senckenberg

In the case of Psittacosaurus, this comes as a real surprise. “Even though in the past few years numerous feathered dinosaurs have been described from China, Psittacosaurs are only remotely related to the present-day birds,” explains the ornithologist from Frankfurt.

By means of the fluorescence images, Mayr and his colleagues were able to demonstrate that the bristles occurred in bundles of 3 to 6 individual bristles. Since the tail was only partially covered with bristles, the researchers assume that they did not serve for thermal insulation, as was the case in other dinosaur species. “We rather assume that the dinosaurs used the bristles for communication purposes, for example during their display,” adds Mayr.

© Senckenberg
The bristles can be compared to the “beard”
of present-day turkeys. © Senckenberg

A further study just published in the journal “Current Biology” describes additional characteristics of the barely two-meter-long dinosaur’s exceptionally well-preserved skin: The upper part of the animal bore a darker color than its underside. The team of scientists presumes that this coloration served for camouflage purposes. “Based on our examination of the distribution of pigments in the skin, we created a model of Psittacosaurus and exposed it to different light conditions. In doing so, we could demonstrate that this species of dinosaur was able to blend in particularly well in areas with closed forests,” explains Mayr, and he summarizes, “We therefore assume that this was also the preferred habitat of Psittacosaurus.”



Dr. Gerald Mayr
Senckenberg Research Institute
and Nature Museum Frankfurt
Section Ornithology
Phone 069- 7542 1348

Judith Jördens
Press Office
Senckenberg Gesellschaft für Naturforschung
Phone 069- 7542 1434



Mayr, G., Pittman, M., Saitta, E., Kaye, T. G., Vinther, J. (2016), Structure and homology of Psittacosaurus tail bristles. Palaeontology. doi: 10.1111/pala.12257

Vinther, J., Nicholls, R., Lautenschlager, S., Pittman, M., Kaye, T.G., Rayfield, E., Mayr, G. & Cuthill, I.C.: 3D camouflage in an ornithischian dinosaur. Current Biology. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2016.06.065


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To study and understand nature with its limitless diversity of living creatures and to preserve and manage it in a sustainable fashion as the basis of life for future generations – this has been the goal of the Senckenberg Gesellschaft für Naturforschung (Senckenberg Nature Research Society) for almost 200 years. This integrative “geobiodiversity research” and the dissemination of research and science are among Senckenberg’s main tasks. Three nature museums in Frankfurt, Görlitz and Dresden display the diversity of life and the earth’s development over millions of years. The Senckenberg Nature Research Society is a member of the Leibniz Association. The Senckenberg Nature Museum in Frankfurt am Main is supported by the City of Frankfurt am Main as well as numerous other partners. Additional information can be found at www.senckenberg.de.


2016 is the Leibniz year. On the occasion of the 370th birthday and the 300-year death anniversary of polymath Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (*7/1/1646 in Leipzig, † 11/14/1716 in Hanover), the Leibniz Association is organizing an extensive topical year. Under the title “The best of all possible worlds” – a Leibniz quote – it brings into focus the diversity and timeliness of the subject matter currently studied by the scientists at the 88 Leibniz institutions across the Federal Republic of Germany. www.bestewelten.de

Press contact

Dr. Sören Dürr
Tel.: 069 7542-1580

Judith Jördens
Tel.: 069 7542-1434
Mobil: 0172-5842340

Anna Lena Schnettler
Tel.: 069 7542-1561

Dr. Alexandra Donecker
Tel.: 069 7542 1209


Forschungsinstitut und Naturmuseum
Senckenberganlage 25
60325 Frankfurt


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