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'Parrot lizard' used camouflage to avoid becoming lunch

Using fossilized skin, paleontologists revealed the color and markings of Psittacosaurus, a discovery that helped them determine its habitat as well. 

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    An artist's illustration of Psittacosaurus, a little dinosaur with a parrot-like beak and bristles on its tail that roamed thick forests in China about 120 million years ago.
    Jakob Vinther and Robert Nicholls/Reuters/Handout
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With doe eyes and a parrot-like beak, Psittacosaurus may have been the most adorable dinosaur of its day.

Thanks to a new reconstruction, the dinosaur is winning admirers today, after paleontologists used fossilized skin to put together a 3-D model. Psittacosaurus, whose name means “parrot lizard,” roamed China’s forests about 120 million years ago. The new model, published Thursday in the journal Cell Biology, reveals never-before-seen physical details.

“Our model suggests it was super, super cute,” lead author Jakob Vinther, a molecular paleobiologist at the University of Bristol, told Reuters. “I think they would have made fantastic pets. They look a bit like E.T.”

Psittacosaurus, which grew to be about five feet long, lived during the Cretaceous period in what is now China. Beaked and bristle-tailed, the herbivorous “parrot lizard” would have been a staple meal for large predators, such as T. Rex’s feathered cousin, Yutyrannus.

With hundreds of fossil specimen to work from, paleontologists have studied Psittacosaurus extensively. But certain aspects of this dinosaur’s appearance and lifestyle still eluded researchers. That is, until Dr. Vinther got his hands on one remarkably complete specimen.

Using electron microscopy, Vinther and colleagues identified fossilized organelles on the dinosaur’s skin. Intact melanosomes, which create and store pigment in vertebrate animals, revealed Psittacosaurus’s color and markings. Vinther enlisted the help of prominent paleoartist Robert Nicholls to bring the dinosaur to life.

“Our Psittacosaurus was reconstructed from the inside-out,” Mr. Nicholls said in a statement. “There are thousands of scales, all different shapes and sizes, and many of them are only partially pigmented. It was a painstaking process but we now have the best suggestion as to what this dinosaur really looked like.”

Psittacosaurus sported a dark brown body with a lighter underside – a pattern known as countershading. The dinosaur’s hind legs were striped on the inside, but spotted on the outside. Its face was heavily pigmented, likely for show.

The coloring on the rest of the body, however, was likely meant to help it hide in its surroundings. Based on the reconstruction, Vinther and colleagues were also able to infer Psittacosaurus’ habitat. The brownish coloration would have nicely concealed the creature in a forest environment, as opposed to a more open habitat. And given the dinosaur’s status as prey, camouflage would have been extremely useful; countershading could confuse predators, making Psittacosaurus appear flatter and harder to spot.

Countershading “is everywhere,” Vinther told Reuters. “We see it in the sea, on land and in flying birds. Examples could be penguins, puffins, dolphins, mackerel, deer, foxes, antelopes. You name it. It's ubiquitous.”

This report contains material from Reuters.

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