New discovery enables researchers to identify the color of extinct animals. Fossils still carry the color information.
Color is the new hot thing in dinosaur fossils. Last month a report about the discovery of the color of dinosaur feathers made headlines.
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Now Scientists from Virginia Tech and the University of Bristol have revealed how pigment can be detected in mammal fossils. This discovery could have a major impact on dinosaur toy makers. They might have to change the colors of their dinosaur action figures.
The researchers discovered the reddish brown color of two extinct species of bat from fossils dating back about 50 million years, marking the first time the colors of extinct mammals have been described through fossil analysis.
The scientists say that the techniques can be used to determine color from well-preserved animal fossils that are up to 300 million years old.
“We have now studied the tissues from fish, frogs, and tadpoles, hair from mammals, feathers from birds, and ink from octopus and squids. They all preserve melanin, so it’s safe to say that melanin is really all over the place in the fossil record. Now we can confidently fill in some of the original color patterns of these ancient animals.” said Caitlin Colleary, a doctoral student of geosciences in the College of Science at Virginia Tech and lead author of the study.
The researchers said microscopic structures traditionally believed to be fossilized bacteria are in fact melanosomes. These organelles within cells contain melanin, the pigment that gives colors to hair, feathers, skin, and eyes.
Fossil melanosomes were first described in a fossil feather in 2008 by Jakob Vinther, a molecular paleobiologist at the University of Bristol and the senior author of the current study.
Since then, the shapes of melanosomes have been used to look at how marine reptiles are related and identify colors in dinosaurs and, now, mammals.
“Very importantly, we see that the different melanins are found in organelles of different shapes: reddish melanosomes are shaped like little meatballs, while black melanosomes are shaped like little sausages and we can see that this trend is also present in the fossils. This means that this correlation of melanin color to shape is an ancient invention, which we can use to easily tell color from fossils by simply looking at the melanosomes shape.” Vinther said.
In addition to shape, melanosomes are chemically distinct.
Using an instrument called a time-of-flight secondary ion mass spectrometer, scientists identified the molecular makeup of the fossil melanosomes to compare with modern melanosomes.
In addition, researchers replicated the conditions under which the fossils formed to identify the chemical alteration of melanin, subjecting modern feathers to high temperatures and pressures to better understand how chemical signatures changed during millions of years of burial.
“By incorporating these experiments, we were able to see how melanin chemically changes over millions of years, establishing a really exciting new way of unlocking information previously inaccessible in fossils, Colleary said.
The work was carried out at the University of Bristol, where Colleary was a master’s student working with Vinther, and the University of Texas at Austin. It was supported by funds from UT Austin, National Geographic, and the University of Bristol.
“It was important to bring microchemistry into the debate, because discussion has been going on for years over whether these structures were just fossilized bacteria or specific bodies where melanin is concentrated. These two things have very different chemical compositions,” said Roger Summons, the Schlumberger Professor of Earth Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who was not involved in the research.
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The research involved scientists from the U.S., the United Kingdom, Germany, Ethiopia, and Denmark. It is being published this week (Sept. 28) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.