Scientists used laser imaging to discover what the Psittacosaurus dinosaur looked like, uncovering details about its habitat in the process. By

What did dinosaurs look like? It’s a tough question, primarily because most of the clues have long since decomposed, and we’re usually left with only bones. However, one specimen, discovered in China, has provided enough information for artist Bob Nicholls to create an extremely accurate replica.

The dinosaur, Psittacosaurus mongoliensis, was common in East Asia during the early- to mid-Cretaceous. It was a small dinosaur, about the size of a turkey. Psittacosaurus was a herbivore, and likely ate mostly nuts, seeds, and small plants.

The specimen that the replica was based upon was found in China a few years ago, and still had intact skin, feathers, and other soft tissue. This allowed Nicholls and a team of researchers to analyze the dinosaur to gain an understanding of exactly what it looked like and how it lived. Their results are published in this month’s edition of Current Biology.

The research team scanned the specimen with specialized laser equipment to reveal its detailed skin pigmentation, which they used to create a lifelike replica. In doing so, the researchers discovered that Psittacosaurus used a form of camouflage, called countershading, that is still widely used by many animals today.

Countershading is the name for the coloration pattern of dark-colored backs and much lighter undersides. This pattern tends to make animals less visible in bright sunlight because it counters the effects from overhead illumination. It’s commonly seen on prey animals like gazelles.

The exact nature of the coloration can also tell researchers what type of habitat Psittacosaurus lived in. Animals with sharp borders between the light and dark regions on their skin or fur tend to live in savannas or grassy plains. Because Psittacosaurus has a more gradual border, that means it probably lived in a forest habitat.

This is the first case of identifying dinosaur skin pigments and using that data to create a 3D replica. This makes Psittacosaurus the most accurate dinosaur replica in the world, at least for now. There are many other dinosaurs that have been discovered with skin and other soft tissue, and this type of analysis and recreation could help researchers make new and exciting dinosaur discoveries.

Source: The Guardian

This article was originally written for and published by Popular Mechanics USA.