Traces of Dinosaurs

If you’re curious about the particular coloring pattern on a puffin, say, you can just go and look at one (or look at a photo someone else took of one).  If, however, you’re curious, not about a puffin, but about Anchiornis huxleyi, a small, flying dinosaur that lived between 160 and 155 million years ago (and you don’t happen to be a scientist in the movie, Jurassic Park) things are not so easy.  Paleontologists who study dinosaurs that have been extinct for millions of years are at quite an evidential disadvantage.  They have to base their theories on traces of dinosaurs, such as fossilized bones, footprints and feathers.

David Lewis argues that past events leave multifarious traces which radiate outward, like the ripples in a pond.  David Albert argues that we know such traces are reliable records because the universe is constantly moving from lower-entropy ready-states (such as the tar pits of California) to higher-entropy record-keeping states (such as the preserved remains found in the tar pits).  Now, paleontologists have used some of these tiny traces—29 surviving chips containing pigments, found alongside the dinosaur’s fossilized remains—to determine the elaborate color patterns of the Anchiornis’ feathers.  According to a recent New York Times article, Evidence Builds on Color of Dinosaurs, by Karl Zimmer, the scientists are using this new technique to determine the colors of many dinosaurs.  So, thanks to traces and to the diligent paleontologists, soon we will have a full-color field guide to the ancient dinosaurs!

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