Forget what you thought dinosaurs looked like -- this adorable bird -- lizard just changed the game

ParrotlizardJakob Vinther / BristolThe turkey-sized Psittacosaurus in the Bristol Botanic Garden.

Paleontologists have teamed up with a paleoartist to create a model which challenges everything you thought you knew about the typical dinosaur.

Research led by Dr Jakob Vinther of the University of Bristol and published in a paper in the journal Current Biology showed that a Psittacosaurus  — nicknamed a “parrot-lizard” —  is about the size of a turkey, has bristles on its tail and a birdlike beak. In other words, a bit weird, but also pretty cute.

It’s also quite likely that the animal had feathers and a horn on each cheek, the experts say. Quite aptly, Psittacosaurus belongs to the group ceratopsians, which basically means “horned faces” in Greek. It’s the same group that contains Triceratops.

The scientists say Psittacosaurus would have lived in what is now China roughly 100-123 million years ago in what may have been a forested region, where several other feathered dinosaur fossils have also been found.

The model that brought Psittacosaurus to life

Dino faceJakob Vinther / BristolThe dinosaur has been labelled ‘weird and cute.’

Some limited information could be gathered about the colouring of Psittacosaurus from preserved melanin patterns inside the fossil, but to get a more accurate glimpse, the team asked paleoartist Bob Nicholls to create a real size 3D model of the animal.

Vinther said that the dark colouring and light belly of Psittacosaurus indicates that it probably lives in forests with dappled lighting, where it could blend into its surroundings and hide from predators.

“The fossil preserves clear countershading, which has been shown to function by counter-illuminating shadows on a body, thus making an animal appear optically flat to the eye of the beholder,” he said. “We were amazed to see how well these colour patterns actually worked to camouflage this little dinosaur.”

Dinosaurs were probably feathery, not scaled like in Jurassic Park.

FossilJakob Vinther / BristolThe Chinese fossil was preserved with skin and pigments intact.

Vinther’s research with pigmentation began while he was at Yale University, where his studies revealed that structures previously believed to be dead bacteria were actually things called melanosomes; small structures that carry melanin pigments, which are found in skin and feathers.

There have been growing theories over the past few decades that dinosaurs were probably more bird-like than lizard. In 1964, Yale Professor John Ostrom discovered a fossil called Deinonychus and hypothesised that it might be warm-blooded and covered in feathers. Several years later, paleontologist Robert Bakker described the famous T-rex as “the 20,000 pound roadrunner from Hell.”

Since 1983 hundreds of feathered fossils have been found around the world, but mostly in China. Each new fossil finding provides clues about previously discovered ones, and brings up new questions about whether dinosaurs were scaled at all. For example, new ideas about where feathers could have been attached on arm bones of theropods such as velociraptors.

The researchers now want to explore more types of fossils to further understand how other species might have been pigmented to be able to camouflage themselves.

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