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Dragonfolk have skin that looks like rock, but sometimes, some of them turn colorful with very bright horns for the same reason salmon turn from grey to red, while others are always bright and colored. In the image there are 4 examples, but the dragonfolk can span any color range, and their pigmentation can change based on what they eat, how much they eat and other factors like age or lifestyle.

I know that frogs and other squishy things can have very bright, almost luminescent colors because their skin produces pigments, but what about horns?

Horns are not made of skin, and the dragonfolk's horn are basically part of their skull, it's basically the shape of their frontal bone and it's covered in bone related stuff, not soft and mushy or scaly skin.

If the horns break, they work like any other bone, if gone missing it stays so, but if re-attached and held it place, then it fuses back and all nerves regrow back.

So what kind of materials could result in such colorful bony horns? Does the stuff that colors bird's feathers also work for horns and can it be influenced by diet, like a dragon that eats too much of one food turns from green to purple and so on?

Consider those are actual bony horns as they are part of the dragon's nasal structure as they are an internal musical instrument filled with fibers, sacks of air and hollow tubes giving them the ability to mimic any sound they hear, kind of like lyre birds in real life but more complex.

Also the surface of the bone, the colored part doesn't have to be literal bone but it has to be hard, as bone possibly.

enter image description here

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  • $\begingroup$ Just to be clear, as your first answer doesn't seem to have recognised this, are you saying you want the horns to be able to change colour like the skin of a chameleon or cuttlefish can? $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Commented Jan 5, 2023 at 17:06
  • $\begingroup$ @Pelinore kinda but more gradual and slowly, like it would take weeks or months to transition from one color to the opposite and not at will $\endgroup$
    – user100394
    Commented Jan 5, 2023 at 17:08
  • $\begingroup$ OK, with weeks or more available then JBHs answer could work, if the horn is continuously growing with the ends shedding or being worn down by scraping or filing .. that would make them pretty fast growing though 🤔 or not, deers antlers are replaced in full every year after all, is a new colour the equivelent of every breeding season enough for you? $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Commented Jan 5, 2023 at 17:11
  • $\begingroup$ Horn is made of keratin, the same stuff as hair, nails, feathers, claws, and scales and can have any colors they can have. horns can have bone cores but are covered in horn AKA keratin. if it is only bone it is an antler not a horn. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Jan 5, 2023 at 21:11

6 Answers 6

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The most vibrant colors you see in nature, like peacock feathers and butterfly wings, do not rely on special materials. They are not pigmented colors, but structural colors. Any material can have vibrant colors if it has the right microscopic structure. (Even chocolate.)

Peacock feathers

These microscopic structures are very thin. The downside is that they are fragile. Your dragonfolk might have to shed and regrow the coloring once a year at the start of mating season.

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    $\begingroup$ While this is true of blues every other color does have options as pigments in birds. also structural colors can be laid down in layers as the horn grows, thus are constantly being exposed as they wear, that is how many snakes do it. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Jan 6, 2023 at 22:15
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    $\begingroup$ perfect answer, with little adjustments this is exactly wha I was looking for $\endgroup$
    – user100394
    Commented Jan 17, 2023 at 18:18
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  1. Many horns on Earth's animals are keratin, which is the same material that makes hair. So you could use the same mechanisms that control color for human hair and animal fur (which is also keratin). In humans, that's melanin. In animals, among other things, it's a gene called Agouti.

  2. You could also use mineralization. This would require you to set rules about what dragons eat (for example, in the movie Reign of Fire, they eat ash). It's not necessary that they simply eat rocks, but they may do so for digestive purposes like birds eat grit. If a dragon favors gold-rich rock for digestion, the result would believably be golden horns.

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    $\begingroup$ Flamingo feathers turn pink because the shrimp they eat (and the algae the shrimp eat) contain carotenoids with a natural red/orange colour, and as their body metabolizes the pigments, it gets into the feathers. Feathers and horns are both made of keratin so its plausible this could happen from the diet alone. $\endgroup$
    – Wyck
    Commented Jan 6, 2023 at 19:20
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Can you have colorful diet influenced hollow horns, yes, but not the way you describe.

We need to break this down into several parts.

  1. Horn is made of keratin, the same stuff in scales, nails, hair, feathers, and claws. Horn is basically a super-specialized type of skin. It can contain many different pigments in fact flamingo are pink because of beta-carotene a pigment in their diet that builds up in the keratin of their feather and skin. Basically every color is possible through keratin born pigments (although no blue pigments exist in animals there are blue pigments that could evolve on an alien world). You can even have colors not visible to human eyes just like birds have.

  2. Can the horn be made of nothing but bone, No. Horns can have a bone core or not but horn is made of keratin. Rhino horn has no bone core while a rams horn does for instance. If there is no horn over the bone it is antler not horn, and you have basically no color options, and more importantly probably can't be permanent. Below is a cross section of a bone cored horn.

enter image description here

  1. Can the bone in the horn be hollow, yes. In fact many ungulates and reptiles already have hollow bone cores in their horns. in ungulates it is often a direct connection to the frontal sinus. one issue with de-horning cattle is it can actually expose the sinus and may not heal properly. You can even see part of the sinus in the antelope horn above.

  2. Can horn be as hard as bone, surprisingly yes. Antler is actually very soft bone and horn can match it in hardness. horn will never be as hard as the hardest bone but soft bone like antler is fine. Of course there is not much reason to want horns as hard as the hardest bone, bone that hard is very brittle and a horn that hard would break easily. enter image description here

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Chameleons have fluorescent compounds in their bones that glow under UV Light, So perhaps your Dragon's horns glow colorful colors at night only.Glowy colorful lizards

Or we take this a step further........

Your species of humanoid dragons could have naturally phosphorescent (when a material can absorb ultraviolet radiation and emit it as visible light that lasts between seconds to hours) compounds in their bones, possibly Calcium sulfide. They absorb UV rays in the day and emit visible light at night, slowly fading until the next day. Different colors could be produced by different impurities, like the different kinds of Quartz and Aluminum Oxide gems found all over the world (also off-topic fun fact: Rubies and Sapphires are both gem-quality forms of AL3O2, colors varying due to different impurities)

The horns could also just be full of some sort of biomineral or other compounds that produces different colors

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You ask:

what kind of materials could result in such colorful bony horns

Where colorful is defined as:

very bright almost luminescent colors

The problem I see here is that no known natural pigment could make horns "very bright." Colorful, perhaps, if by "colorful" you mean taupe, brown, dark brown, or very dark brown. While antlers might be made of bone, horns (as @JBH points out) are made of keratin, which means that they could easily be colored with melanin, the substance that colors hair. Your options, however, would pretty much be limited to a monochromatic spectrum, where:

  • lots of eumelanin = black horns
  • some eumelanin = brown horns
  • not much eumelanin = blondish horns
  • pheomelanin = red horns??!!

None of these colors would be "very bright" or would even come close to luminescence. Mineral sources might be the closest you could get, but even then, there is no existing science to show how eating minerals might affect horn pigmentation. The best you'd get is conjecture.

So I present my alternate solution:

They are dyed as a fashion statement

Your dragon people don't have naturally colorful horns. In fact, even the nutrition sources that cause their skin to turn colorful have no effect on horns. But colorful horns are pretty. And having a colorful, bright, luminescent body with... brown horns? Boring. So your dragon people start a trend where it is popular to get their horns dyed.

There are two ways to dye horns:

1. Painting - there is a trend where people paint the horns of their livestock. In India, especially, where cows are considered sacred, people paint the horns of their cows in honor of the Diwali festival. So lower-class dragon people that can't afford expensive treatments paint their horns. It becomes an art thing. They might even match their horns to their skin. It's no different than painting your keratin-based nails. Want to change the color? Just use some acetone to wash it off and start again ;)

2. Injection - there is a concept of artificially infusing rhino horns and elephant tusks with dye in order to devalue the horns and prevent poaching. These procedures, like that undertaken by the Rhino Rescue Project, involve drilling holes in the horn and filling them with pigment. Upper-class dragon people might take advantage of some expensive variation of this treatment to dye their horns. They might even return for the treatment every few months or so, as the horns grow out or the dye fades. Just like getting a hair color treatment.

Granted, there are some challenges with this procedure. First, the horns are not actually bright pink as some sources suggested, but rather a pale color that fades with time. They also grow out as the rhino's horns grow. However, the procedure does exist and it's possible it could be modified to cause bright, colorful horns. Realize that the goal of the animal rights activists is to make the dye as invisible as possible so that the animals are not targets, but with some science this could be modified.

Not sure this fully satisfies your question, but the way I understand it, your primary question is "what kind of material could result in such colorful bony horns," while "can it be influenced by diet" is a secondary question. So in response to the first: injection or paint could result in colorful horns. In response to the second: no, it can't be influenced by diet.

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Paint (frame challenge)

As part of their traditions, dragonfolk paint their bones according to age, rank, and lifestyle. They use natural pigments (e.g. ochres and other earths, ash, chalk, oxides, carbonates, flower and plant extracts, cochineal, &c.) mixed with water, resins, beeswax, egg whites, oils, or other substances, depending on the desired longevity and a recipe's adherence to keratin.

It is still related to the dragonfolk individual's diet (but only indirectly, similar to how traditional human fashion and body decoration usually was indicative of an individual's diet).

Of course, this frame challenge can be used in conjunction with naturally occurring colours.

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