The Psittacosaurus's preservation is the product of calcium phosphate absorbed into its skin from surrounding rocks after death. Vinther lit up the fluorescent calcium phosphate with a laser to reveal the color patterns.
Some parts survived better than others, so mapping the colors became a matter of filling in the gaps. As the images show, the coloring was complex, with the chest darker than the underbelly or tail. It is thought the camouflage served to evade large theropod predators.
“By reconstructing a life-size 3D model, we were able to not only see how the patterns of shading changed over the body, but also that it matched the sort of camouflage which would work best in a forested environment,” said co-author Professor Innes Cuthill in a statement. The prediction was confirmed by placing the 3D model of Psittacosaurus among some plant survivors from the Cretaceous to learn where it was least visible.
Psittacosaurus from the front. Robert Nicholls
The heavily pigmented face has yet to be explained, but the dark coloring around the cloaca (used for both reproduction and defecation) is thought to be a product of melanin's anti-microbial properties.
Although Psittacosaurus had scales, it has been found in early Cretaceous deposits from China that often contain feathered dinosaurs.
The nine known species of Psittacosaurus aren't among the more famous dinosaurs, but with more than 400 known specimens they're a well-studied genera and are suspected to have been relatively intelligent. Although related to the ever-popular Triceratops, the connection was not close enough for the latest research to tell us much about the three-horned dinosaur's lifestyle.