What color were dinosaurs?

Dear Cecil:

While passing an ARCO station the other day, I thought of the old Sinclair sign with the dinosaur on it — Dino the Big Green Brontosaurus. What I want to know is, how do they know that dinosaurs were green? Are they just guessing or does someone actually have a piece of dinosaur skin? Also, it's common to see dinosaur bones at a museum, but has anyone ever found a frozen piece of hide or meat in a glacier somewhere? If so, would it be possible to take this 100,000,000-year-old tissue and clone a living dinosaur from its cells?

Cecil replies:

Do you honestly think the Sinclair people made their company symbol green because they had some serious scientific notion that real dinosaurs were green — and kelly green at that? They just thought it was an appealing color, and not as implausible as, say, lavender. Apart from their association with fossil fuels, dinosaurs are widely thought (by children at least) to be cuddly. You may recall that Sinclair at one time distributed inflatable plastic replicas of Dino. I had one, and found it inexplicably charming.

It is not known with any certainty what color brontosauruses were. No pieces of dinosaur skin have ever been found; like other soft tissue, it decays rapidly. The vertebrate fossil record is almost entirely in the form of bones and other durable items, and even then the original material has usually been salted out and replaced by various minerals. There have been a couple of skin impressions found, where a dinosaur sat down, one supposes, but these give no clue as to color.

As for preservation in ice, dinosaurs resided on this planet from 225,000,000 to 65,000,000 years ago. It is generally thought that the oldest ice formations on earth are those of Antarctica, which are perhaps 50,000,000 years old. From this we deduce that no brontosaurus-bearing ice has survived to the present day.

Mammoths, bison, and other critters found in polar ice are relics from the most recent interglacial period, and are between 10,000 and 70,000 years old, which is quite youthful, relatively speaking. You may recall reading some time ago that Russian scientists were attempting to clone a mammoth from some preserved cells. Don’t hold your breath.

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.

Comment on this Column