Robert Nicholls

This dinosaur’s striking markings reveals where it lived

There’s a reason this dinosaur looks a bit like a raccoon. Three well-preserved specimens of Sinosauropteryx—a turkey-sized, meat-eating dino that lived in China about 130 million years ago—suggest the animal had a dark stripe around its eyes, researchers report today in Current Biology. Sinosauropteryx is famous for being one of the first dinosaurs to be found with fossilized feathers. In 2010, researchers showed that those feathers still contained melanosomes, which give feathers their color. Now, by taking a closer look at these color patterns, scientists have deduced more details not only about the dinosaur’s bandit mask, but also its dark back and sides and white belly. Such patterns are classic examples of counter-shading camouflage, which counteracts shadows. And the eye shadow can help reduce glare, which is especially useful for animals that live in places with plenty of direct sunlight—or that spend time near water. All of this indicates that Sinosauropteryx probably lived in open areas—not in forests. The dino lived in the so-called Jehol biota, which is a stunningly rich source of well-preserved fossils. Most Jehol animals are thought to have been forest dwellers, so Sinosauropteryx’s adaptations to sunny areas are one of the first clues that the region wasn’t only forest, but included a variety of different habitats. That will help researchers better understand the vanished world in which these ancient creatures lived.