Although we do know the coloration of a handful of prehistoric animals, the majority of them still sit in the category of “Who knows?” Things such as the carbon remnants that can be used to derive or imply a hue simply don’t preserve nearly as often as we’d like. It leaves room to guess. This allows paleo artists to restore long dead fauna with an array of colors and patterns that, while fantastic, are not technically wrong until proven otherwise. This topic was brought up by a few colleagues of mine in a group conversation. Where can we draw the line for flamboyance?
Let’s look at my rather colorful Camarasaurus for our first example. This medium-sized sauropod has been gifted with an aquamarine upper torso, stripes, and even an eyespot (note: most of my Jurassic-era dinosaurs bear eyespots – I’ve got a headcanon that this is the best deterrent for the hit-and-run Allosaurus). With dinosaurs, it can be expected that very large herbivores could sport impressive coloration because there’s simply no point in them trying to camouflage. These are animals that are compared to multiples of African elephants in terms of weight, and the most extreme genera can be as long as freighter planes. So, it’s not particularly sinful (it’s even encouraged) that sauropods could and would be restored as flashy.
On the opposite end of that spectrum rests my newest Pachycephalosaurus. I’ve chosen to bring the colors down quite a bit along the body. The animal bears a simple black-brown-tan stripe patterning, but its famous cranial dome has an interesting but not overly-flashy display. It’s also a few magnitudes smaller than the Camarasaurus. In dinosaurs, I interpret color to be a function of size. The smaller the animal (relative to things like sauropods and other large herbivores), the more likely it is to look less “ambitious.”
That’s not to say that simple colors can’t be beautiful. I appreciate the three-toned body of the pachy. It means that not all dinosaurs could afford the luxury or would even need to be outlandishly-skinned. They were living, breathing animals. As such, like today’s animals, they’d vary in patterning and color palettes pending on their environment, ecological niche, size, season, and so on. It’s entirely possible that, during the spring, a pachy’s quills would grow bright yellow to attract mates!
It’s something that I’ll be sure to keep more in mind as I continue to roll along and habitually draw up restorations. I’ve let myself a bit too loose, creatively, and it’s just time to reel it back in.
Skeletal References: Camarasaurus by Scott Hartman; Pachycephalosaurus by Unknown.