No fossil: an interview with Mike Benton

We are blessed with a really good paleontology department at Bristol University and it’s all housed in the really lovely Wills memorial building at the top of park street. I hardly ever have cause to go in there, but today I was going in to its shadowy halls to meet the eminent head of paleobiology Mike Benton.

The Wills memorial building houses, among other things, the Earth Sciences department.

I’ve had the privilege of talking to some hugely interesting people over the last couple of months for Epigram. Mike is certainly no different. He has done no less than work out what colour dinosaurs were. But before we got on to that,  I had a question to ask him; one that had me more than a tiny bit scared as I walked past this intimidating fossil leg on the way to Mike’s office.

Mike Benton

Intimidating fossilised leg bones standing in the grand hallway of the Wills building

In view of the scrutiny that science funding is under right now, and having just watched Horizon with Paul Nurse, the most burning question I had for Mike was this: How can you justify spending money on paleontology in the economic climate we’re in?

That’s not to say I think paleontology is rubbish or not useful – far from it – but I can see that there might be some who would take that view. It could be argued that studying extinct animals doesn’t have any really obvious ways in which it practically benefits our day-to-day lives.

In the event Mike was an incredibly nice guy, and didn’t mind the question at all. “In fact it’s very topical” he told me, and doing things like this (meaning the interview); justifying his work to the wider public, is something he sees as his scientific duty.

“A lot of people think that if you’re a scientist you should be devoting all your efforts to immediate economic and medical problems. But in that case, they are interpreting scientist in the sense of technologist.”

So Mike’s answer was that human society is advanced enough that it’s right and good that we ask philosophical questions, like ‘where did life come from?’ Not necessarily because they are of direct physical benefit to us, but because there is an innate desire in all of us to understand things like that.

“If we value Mozart, and we think it’s our duty and our right to listen to Mozart […] well, that’s one of the advantages of living in a society where we don’t have to tend the flocks, collect the food and do all the fundamental stone age basics. We have time to think, and discuss things.”

So according to the professor, paleontology is one of the privileges of a developed society. The caveat Mike was at pains to put in place though, was that not just any intellectual pursuit should be allowed limitless funding for the sake of indulging our inquisitive minds.

“I’m not making the case: therefore, give me loads of money. Because of course, like Mozart, we [scientists] are up against competition all the time. Mozart survived because he’s damn good at what he did, probably another hundred musicians of his era are forgotten because they were not so good.”

“And I’m not suggesting that anyone who cares to designate himself a scientist should be given money. And we absolutely have to go back to the public all the time and justify what we are doing.”

Well, certainly one can’t say what the Bristol paleontologists are doing is anything but world-class science. In January 2010 Mike and his team published a scientific paper in the journal Nature in which they worked out the colours and markings of specific dinosaurs.

It’s only been recently that places like Russia and in particular China have started to be thoroughly explored by fossil hunters. Paleontologists were amazed a few years ago when the first examples of fossils containing feathers were unearthed in China. Professor Benton and his team were lucky enough to visit some of the sites in China and study some of the fossils, even bringing some specimens back here to Bristol. The remains of the dinosaur Sinosauropteryx (pictured) was one the specimens they brought back.

After closely examining the fossils the team were able to make a detailed study of the melanosomes – structures within the feathers which contain the protein melanin. Melanin is also found in modern humans, where it gives our skin its colour. It did the same thing for dinosaur feathers.

Sinosauropteryx fossil

The fossils the team analysed had several different types of melanosomes which contained slightly different types of melanin; Eumelanin which gives black and brown colours and Phaeomelanin which gives reddish colours. It’s these exact same proteins which give human hair its colour; which is why we see a spectrum of hair colours from black to blonde and ginger, but we don’t see blue for example, because melanin doesn’t come in blue.

After looking at the way the different types of melanosomes are packed in the fossils, the paleontologists worked out that their packing arrangements would give the dinosaur a ginger colouration, and on the tail, there were patterns of light and dark melanosome regions which would have given rise to stripes, a bit like those on a tiger.

An artist’s impression of Sinosauropteryx, complete with the ginger-blonde striped tail feathers

This seminal work is the first time scientists have managed to discern the colour of a fossilised animal. Of course, it’s hugely entertaining for the lay public to see pictures of ginger dinosaurs, but Mike and his team are really trying to answer a deeper question.

They want to know why certain groups of animals are more successful than others. Take for example birds, they’re clearly doing something right, they’re everywhere. But what is fundamental about them and gives them the key to their success? Cleary the feather is something to do with that – they’ve all got feathers.

Previously scientists knew thought feathers were used for insulation and somewhere along the evolutionary line they were co-opted for flight. Now we also know they were also brightly coloured and so they were also used for signalling… something.

Mike’s quest to understand what makes certain branches of the evolutionary tree so successful is a difficult but fascinating one.  We never expected to know the colours of creatures which lived 100 million years ago. Who knows what we might learn about life’s origins next?


If you want to know more, try reading Mike’s Nature paper or checking out the excellent Bristol paleontology department website:

M. J. Benton et. al., Nature, 2010, 463, 1075-1078

This entry was posted in Interviews, Popular science, Science and society, Science policy. Bookmark the permalink.

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