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The Color of Extinct Animals: Fossilized Pigments Reveal What Creatures Looked Like

First Posted: Sep 29, 2015 08:44 AM EDT

What color are extinct animals? That's a good question. Now, scientists have discovered a way to detect pigment in mammal fossils, which may show researchers what ancient animals once looked like.

In this case, the researchers looked at microscopic structures traditionally believed to be fossilized bacteria. Yet these "bacteria," the researchers found, were actually fossilized melanosomes. These are organelles within cells that contain melanin, which is the pigment that gives colors to hair, feathers, skin and eyes.

"We have now studied the tissues from fish, frogs and tadpoles, hair from mammals, feathers from birds, and ink from octopus and squids," said Caitlin Colleary, one of the researchers, in a news release. "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."

Fossil melanosomes were first described in a fossil feather in 2008. Since then, though, the shapes of melanosomes have been used to look at how marine reptiles are related and identify colors in dinosaurs. Now, the researchers are moving onto 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," said Jakob Vinther, one of the researchers. "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."

The findings are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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