Scientists reconstruct the colors of an ancient snake while it was alive.
Researchers have recently unearthed the fossil remains of a snake that lived 10 million years ago, but unfortunately the fossil was in bad shape and its colors were missing.
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Previously, researchers used melanin - a pigment that is linked to the color of skin, eyes and hair – to determine the color of the fossilized remains but there is a drawback in this method. It is limited to just brown, black and muddy red color pigments. Other pigments tend to decay away over the years.
Though, the pigments are no longer there, the cells where the pigments were lying, are fully intact. Fossilized snakeskin contains different types of cells specific to each kind of pigment which can help reveal the color pattern on a snake’s body.
Researchers have identified the microscopic structures in the fossilized skin of the ancient snake and attempted to find out what colors the snake would have had on its skin while it was alive.
“When you get fossil tissues preserved with this kind of detail, you’re just gobsmacked when you’re at it under the microscope,” said co researcher Maria McNamara, a paleobiologist at University College Cork. "I was astounded. You almost can't believe what you're seeing.”
Researchers put the fossil under a high powered scanning microscope, matched the shapes of the pigment cells with those of modern snakes and tried to fill up in the blank spaces.
“For the first time, we’re seeing that mineralized tissues can preserve evidence of color.” McNamara said.
Inside a snake skin, there are three different types of pigment cells: iridophores, xanthophores, and melanophores with each containing a different type of granules that correspond to different colors. But the distribution of these pigment cells varies across the body and result in different color patterns in different regions.
Based on the multiple structures they spotted, researchers suggest that the underside of the snake was pale, creamy while its back and sides were green with brown-black and yellow-green bloteches.
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McNamara says. “Up until, this discovery, the only prospect for skin color being preserved in fossils was organic remains related to melanin but now we know color can be preserved even for tissues that are mineralized, it’s very exciting.”