Dinosaurs Put All Colored Birds' Eggs in One Basket, Evolutionarily Speaking

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At this point, the idea that birds are actually just what's left of dinosaurs is widely accepted, so it should be no surprise that researchers are working hard to determine what pieces of modern birds are actually leftovers from much more ferocious beasts that roamed the earth tens of millions of years back. This still leaves us with a very straightforward question: why did colored eggs emerge in the first place? Birds did not evolve their egg colors on their own, but inherited the ability from non-avian dinosaurs.

In spite of their diversity, bird eggs derive their color from just two pigments: protoporphyrin, which produces a reddish-brown color, and biliverdin, which creates blue and green.

"[This] is a true discovery", says Mark Hauber, an ornithologist who studies the evolution of bird eggs and brooding behaviors at the University of IL in Urbana and was not involved in the research. Maps of protoporphyrin accumulation across the surface of numerous eggs, including Deinonychus and some troodontids revealed darker speckling patterns on top of the background color.

"Our study fundamentally changes our understanding of egg color evolution, and adds color to dinosaur nests in the real "Jurassic World".

Fossil theropod dinosaur egg, front, with modern bird eggs in a nest.

But really though: A study from a year ago found that oviraptors, a dinosaur of the late Cretaceous period, laid blue-green eggs, containing the same pigments as modern bird eggs. As part of a new study, published recently in the journal Nature, Wiemann and her colleagues expanded their research to include eggshells from 15 Cretaceous dinosaurs and extinct birds, along with the eggs of living birds like chickens, emus and terns, reports John Pickrell of Science. But many birds have colored eggshells that camouflage their eggs in nests that are exposed to the elements and predators.

Illustration of a hatching Deinonychus chick from a blue egg with brown spots. One animal coloration expert not involved in the study, professor Mary Caswell Stoddard at Princeton, thought the research would ignite conversations about dinosaur behavior.

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Now the researchers have analyzed egg shells from more.

"We can fingerprint the pigments", Wiemann said. If it's a quail egg, it has inky speckles.

Birds evolved from eumaniraptoran dinosaurs in the Jurassic Period.

"Dinosaur eggs could have been camouflaged, they could have been individually recognized, they could have been mimetic", says Hauber.

Most likely, it was a single event, even of uncertain mutation, which caused accumulation of biliverdin in the shell and made the eggs for the beginning of blue-green.

The researchers in this particular study looked closely at various fossilized eggs from dinosaurs to see if they could detect what was once pigment. Before this work, though, many biologists predicted that modern birds, not their ancestors, developed colorful eggshells. Thermoregulation? Or, as in some parasitic birds, to mimic the appearance of a host's eggs?

And, she said, "It's an example of another feature that was really thought to be exclusive among birds".

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