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10 Extinct or Nearly Extinct Colors
The world we live in is a colorful place (except in our dreams, which are mostly black and white, which is odd when you stop to think about it). Though we are surrounded by color and new colors are invented all the time, some colors have completely disappeared from our lives, or are very rare, or are becoming extinct. This list is a sampling of some of those pigments or colors once found in nature, in consumer products, manufactured goods, building construction, etc.
Ever drive down the road and notice most of the cars you see are colored in four colors (mostly black, white, silver, or gray)? Part of the reason why is resale value – people who want to resell their car later know they are far more likely to find a buyer if the car is one of these common colors. Though other colors are out there, (mostly brightly colored new small cars and new muscle cars), we have lost some of the variety of colors we used to see on cars.
Anyone who remembers car colors from before the 1990s, and especially car colors from the 1950s-1980s, remember there being a whole range of vibrant, sometimes weird colored cars on the road. Where did these cars and these wild and weird colors go? They didn’t go anywhere really, the colors (for the most part) still exist and some even get used today. An example of an almost extinct color that was invented for the automobile paint industry was Quinacridone Gold. Today it is all but extinct because the only manufacturer of this pigment discontinued it long ago and no one else makes it today. It is highly prized by some artists for use in watercolor and oil painting. What did change was paint technology itself, and how paints are applied to modern automobiles.
For sure, more eye-popping and vibrant-looking colors were used on cars in the 1950s-1970s (my older sister had a bright yellow 1975 Mercury Capri that screamed “canary!”) but the paint also looked different because of the way it sat on the car. It wasn’t just that there were different and more vibrant pigments, paints of that era mostly sat flat on the car. Modern paints seem to flow with the car, and appear different from different angles. Finishes were a lot more matte than today’s high glossy car finishes. The older paint colors also resulted from the use of acrylic lacquer and enamel paints. The acrylic lacquer paints allowed for high color pigmentation and were more glossy (though not as glossy as today’s paints). Problem was, they required the use of a lot of fast-drying solvents, which have widely been phased out of car paints because of their toxicological and environmental problems. These acrylic paints also became brittle and cracked when exposed to UV sunlight. The colors would fade over time. I had a bright red Saab 900 that, by the time I finally sold it almost fifteen years later, was the color of the pink you see in breast cancer awareness posters. Enamel paints were somewhat better than acrylic car paints, but still had quality problems.
Today, car manufacturers paint their vehicles with high-tech paints that need to meet tough environmental and durability testing requirements (they are far better at resisting chips, fading from sunlight, effects of road salt, etc.). They are more durable and give off almost translucent properties unimagined in the 1960s. Still, there was nothing like those old car colors of that era that are now relegated mostly to museums and car shows.
One of the enduring mysteries of the “terrible lizards” has always been – what did dinosaurs really look like? Were they just dull green or brown or black creatures as commonly depicted in books and films? Or were the brightly colored and patterned like many moderns animals? And did they have colors that we no longer see in animals today? Though these colors are now as extinct as their owners, can we rediscover them by studying fossils?
Until very recently, this question could not be answered but recent scientific discoveries have started to pull back the veil on what dinosaurs may have really looked like, color-wise, millions of years ago. Studies at the cellular level of dinosaur fossils have extrapolated from primitive pigment-giving organelles known as melanosomes. Melanosomes contain the coloring pigment melanin found in modern animals. Fossilized dinosaur feathers have revealed melanosome structures that indicate these feathered dinosaurs may have had black bodies with bright red (ginger-like) color and banded patterns. In fact, the presence of color pigments is what allowed the dinosaur feathers to be preserved and fossilized. If the feathers had been white (no pigment) they would not have fossilized. Though the actual melanosomes no longer exhibit their original pigment (which disappeared through chemical reactions over the millions of years), scientists can still guess at the type of color and pigment based on the size and shape of the melanosome. Modern animals have melanosomes of specific shapes and sizes, for say, black or red. If scientists see similar shaped and sized melanosomes in the fossils of the dinosaur feathers, they can assume that was the color the dinosaur also had.
Scientists have also studied feathers of modern animals to determine what melanosome structures exhibited other color characteristics such as iridescence. Based on these models, they looked at preserved melanosomes of other dinosaur feathers and determined these dinosaurs had feathers with iridescence. This added the possibility of the feathers having purples, blues, and greens.
Hamsters come in many different colors and patterns including Banded, Dominant Spot, and Roan. One specific variation, close to the Dominant Spot hamster (which has a white belly and dominant spot patterns on its back) was the Piebald. Unlike the Dominant Spot hamster, the Piebald hamster was a colored hamster with white spots on its body. The Piebald hamster had spots of varying number and size, and the hamster did have a colored (rather than all white) belly, unlike the Dominant Spot hamster. The colored belly could also have spots, unlike the Dominant Spot which has an all white belly. The Dominant Spot hamster was first seen in America in 1964 and quickly became more popular than the Piebald hamster because they were easier to breed. Today the Piebald colored hamster is believed to be extinct as none have been seen in years.
Pink dolphins, sometimes referred to as the “Boto,” inhabit the Amazon River and some rivers in China and are fresh water cousins of the better-known dolphins of the worlds oceans. They have been listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as a “vulnerable species-threatened” and recently was moved to “endangered species-threatened.” Of the five species of river dolphins (the other four being functionally extinct), the Amazon River pink dolphins are still hanging on, though increased river traffic on the Amazonian rivers (they are very curious animals and swim right up to boats and are killed or injured as a result), environmental pollution, and habitat loss are beginning to impact their numbers.
The Amazon River dolphins belong to the genus Inia and are not the same as dolphins in the oceans. Ocean dolphins have dorsal fins while pink dolphins have humps on their backs. Though their color may vary from blue-grey, to brown, to cream-white or just plain gray, most pink dolphins do in fact look pink. Why this is, is a mystery. Scientists feel it may be related to their diets which consist of many shelled animals which have a red pigment in their muscle tissue. Scientists believe that as the dolphins age and mature, this red pigment builds up in their skin and leads to their pink color. Dolphins also have a large number of blood capillaries near the surface of their skin which may be another contributing factor. Hopefully the pink dolphins will be protected so we always have this unique color in our world.
This paint color is as extinct as its source – Egyptian mummies. Caput mortem was a brown pigment sometimes referred to as “mummy brown” or “Egyptian brown” because it was made from ground up mummies. Caput mortuum means, “worthless remains” and was a pigment made in the 16th and 17th centuries. The use of Caput Mortuum pigment fell out of favor by the 19th century when artists became aware of the origins. For a time it was used to color robes of religious figures and was referred to as Cardinal Purple.
A pigment that would be at the top of modern day animal protection activists everywhere would be the now extinct Indian yellow. Though its origins are today disputed, it has long been held that this transparent yellow pigment used in oil paints came from the urine of specially fed cows in India. Indian yellow is a clear, luminescent, and deep yellow pigment and was widely used by oil and watercolor painters. Because of its fluorescent properties, Indian yellow is especially vivid in sunlight.
However, an investigation into the manufacture of this pigment in 1883 turned up some disturbing information. It was claimed that Indian yellow pigment came from the urine of cows fed only mango leaves. The resulting urine was collected, dried, and rolled into yellow balls of pigment. European traders then imported the “piss balls” of pigment for processing into the Indian yellow pigment for paint. In 1908 the process was declared inhumane and stopped. This was because the cows became undernourished on the mango leaf only diet. However, today this source of Indian yellow is disputed as no investigation has turned up anyone in the areas of India where the pigment was supposed to have been manufactured that can recall ever making it using cows. Still, Indian yellow is now replaced by synthetic Indian yellow hue, which is nickel-based.
Designed and introduced to the public in the 1930s, Fiesta ware is a line of solid-colored dinnerware manufactured by the Homer Laughlin China Company of Newell, West Virginia. The original Fiesta ware was discontinued in 1973 but later brought back. The bright and vivid red or orange color is one color of the original Fiesta ware that you can no longer buy (though you can still see the color in vintage Fiesta ware from the time period).
The five original colors of Fiesta ware were red, blue, green, yellow, and ivory. The colors were specific because the idea was people could mix and match pieces and colors of the dinnerware, so the colors had to be complimentary. The most popular of the original colors was red Fiesta ware, which got its bright red (orange) color through the use of uranium dioxide in the glaze. The red Fiesta ware was also the most expensive because of the amount of uranium dioxide that went into the glaze (up to 15% by weight) and a more complicated firing process. The result, however, was a brilliant and vibrant red or orange color like none seen before or since. From 1936 until 1943 (when the uranium was needed for use for atomic weapons development), red Fiesta ware was made using uranium dioxide in the glaze. Later the company switched to using a depleted uranium product but for the first 6-7 years the product was made, it was made with a lot of radioactive uranium. Today these surviving examples of original red Fiesta ware are known for being beautiful as well as potentially deadly. There are three hazards of the radioactivity of the red Fiesta ware. First, the person handling the Fiesta ware can be exposed to gamma rays being emitted by the radionuclides in the uranium glaze. Second, a person handling the Fiesta ware can be exposed to the beta particles emitted by radionuclides in the ceramic glaze, which get onto their hands. Third, a person could be exposed to radionuclides that leach from the glaze into food when they eat food served in the Fiesta ware.
Other colors of the Fiesta ware (such as the ivory) also contained small amounts of radioactive uranium, but the bright reddish-orange original Fiesta ware is the most radioactive by far. It is not a color you will likely see again in a dinnerware, or any other consumer product, due to the hazards of uranium.
The transparent blue-green colored pigment, verdigris (meaning, green of Greece) was used from antiquity until the Middle Ages as a pigment in paints and other materials. Until the 19th century, verdigris was the most vibrant green color available and was widely used by artists in the Renaissance and Baroque movements. Unfortunately, verdigris gets its color from copper acetate, which is highly toxic to humans. Verdigris is also a highly reactive copper pigment and will age to dark brown or black. As more stable green pigments became available, the use of verdigris disappeared. Therefore, it is hardly used today as an artists pigment.
Another old pigment that would be on the PETA hit list today is ivory black. This deep blue-black color was derived from the burning of ivory from elephant tusks. The left over waste product was charred in oil and refined into this pigment. True ivory black was derived this way and, for obvious reasons, is not used today as the source of the ivory, elephants, are becoming extinct. Ivory black is sometimes referred to as “bone char” which is a granular material made from the charring of animal bones. But bone char can be made from any animal bones, where as ivory black came only from the use of ivory. Rembrandt was one Master painter who often used ivory black in his work.
Did you ever see an old metal bridge painted red? At one time, almost all metal structures such as bridges (and especially any metal that was near bodies of water and the sea air that could be easily corroded by the salt and moisture) were painted with red lead paint. Red lead or “minim” got its name from the Minius River in northern Spain where it was first mined. It is a bright orange or red pigment made from lead tetra oxide. Until the 1970s, the lead tetra oxide pigment was mixed with linseed oil to make a thick and corrosion-resistant paint often referred to as “red lead” paint. The red lead paint was most frequently used as primer paint on iron objects, which needed protection from the elements. Probably the most famous example is the Golden Gate Bridge, which had its distinctive orange color from red lead paint. The bridge was painted with a red lead primer and topcoat. The original red lead paint used on the Golden Gate Bridge was 68% red lead paste.
Today, the bright red and orange structures are giving way to zinc-based primers and topcoats because of the environmental and toxicity hazards of lead. For example, since 1968, the Golden Gate Bridge has been repainted with inorganic zinc silicate primer with vinyl topcoat (later changed to acrylic topcoat to meet more stringent air quality standards). In the United States and many other countries, the use of lead-based paints is highly regulated. Zinc-based colors on bridges and metal structures are usually green. The old red-colored bridges are still out there, but are fading away. It is estimated there are thousands of old bridges in the United States that are slowly deteriorating, many of which are unsafe. The original red lead needs to be removed carefully so as not to expose workers to high lead levels and to protect the environment, before the bridges are repainted, usually with zinc-based paint.
In 2007, if you followed the news media, it appeared that our redheaded friends were doomed to extinction. That’s right. According to these articles, red heads (or gingers) would be extinct as early as the year 2060. No longer would we see the fiery red and orange hair of Archie or Ginger. Fortunately, all of the so-called “genetic scientists” quoted in these articles were wrong, red heads, like blondes, are going nowhere and will not become extinct.
These mistaken articles often cited something called the Oxford Hair Foundation as their source and relied on the unfounded belief that recessive genes like those that cause red hair will naturally “die out” over time. This is nonsense. Recessive genes are, in fact, more rare than dominant genes, but the only way these recessive genes can go extinct is if everyone carrying them died all at once or failed to reproduce. And since the world still contains many redheaded people, it is highly unlikely such a catastrophe could happen (in spite of Cartman’s evil intentions).
In 2007 National Geographic magazine ran an article on world populations of redheaded humans. In it they stated there was a belief that redheads would someday become extinct, but they did not support this. In fact, they stated “while redheads may decline, the potential for red isn’t going away.”