Richard Prum is First to Reconstruct Full Feathered Plumage of Dinosaur, in Color

Michael DiGiorigio/Yale University



Richard Prum : Dinosaurs are all around us. They didn’t go extinct. In fact, they’re the most plentiful and diverse group of terrestrial vertebrates on the planet. They are the birds!

Richard Prum, an evolutionary biologist at Yale University, is an expert on the structure of feathers. He told EarthSky that feathers originated in dinosaurs – not in birds.

In literally the last 10 years, we’ve discovered that feathers evolved in dinosaurs before the origin of flight. And that’s been an astounding result given that biologists spent over a century thinking that feathers actually evolved for flight.

In 2010, Prum became the first scientist to reconstruct the full plumage of a dinosaur, in color. He based his work on the fossilized remains of a dinosaur called a troodontid, a small, meat-eating, flightless dinosaur. Dr. Prum found evidence of black, gray, white, and red feathers.

We discovered the original pigment granules that had been in the feathers of the animal when it was alive, the kind of pigments that produce black hair and red hair and blond hair in humans.

Prum said this dinosaur had the kind of coloration you might find on a particularly striking turkey or chicken today. He added that, since these ancient feathers didn’t aid flight, they likely served for purposes of animal communication, mating, and warmth. Prum said that feathers weren’t found in all dinosaurs, just in a particular class of dinosaurs called therapods.


They’re sort of the most charismatic and meat-eating of the dinosaurs. These are Velociraptor, Tyrannosaurus Rex, Allosaurus, all those guys.

He explained that our lack of knowledge about the function of early feathers is actually coincident with new discoveries about what those feathers were like.

It looks like the first feathers were actually simple tubes, like a simple tube with a tuft, a fuzzy tuffy like a down feather, followed by a more complex branch feather.

Prum said he’s working right now on a paper about dinosaur molting. He says that dinosaurs shed their feathers the way modern birds do.

Written by Beth Lebwohl


About the author

EarthSky – a clear voice for science for broadcast and the Internet – advocates science as a vital tool for the 21st century. Our award-winning science content – in audio and video formats, in English and Spanish – is seen or heard 15 million times every day on multiple platforms via both traditional and new media outlets including National Public Radio (NPR) in the United States, independent commercial broadcast outlets in the U.S. and around the world, XM/Sirius satellite radio, WRN (formerly World Radio Network) out of London, International Community Radio Taipei (ICRT), iTunes, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google Earth and dozens of online podcast aggregators. We have been a world leader in bringing the voices of scientists directly to you and millions of others across the globe since 1991. EarthSky brings scientists’ words and insights to a large audience thanks to the support and partnership of thousands of scientists and scientific institutions


Call for Most Innovative Companies entries! Apply now.

500+ winners will be featured on Final deadline: 9/23.