Researchers Devise Way to Determine Color from Fossils

Researchers now know how to tell what color an ancient animal was from its fossils

fossil bat
Kevin Schafer/Corbis

Ancient fossils can reveal all kinds of information: what an animal might have eaten, what it looked like and how big it was, for instance. But for a long time, scientists have struggled to find a way to figure out what color an organism was from its fossilized remains. Now, a group of researchers have devised a method for determining the pigments in the fur of fossilized bats, revealing their true coloration.

Using this new technique they have confirmed what you may have suspected about the coloration of bats. "Well, the bats are brown,” molecular paleobiologist Jakob Vinther of the University of Bristol tells Will Dunham for Reuters. “It might not be a big surprise, but that's what these 49-million-year-old bats are. So they looked perfectly like modern bats.”

The bats may not have been rainbow-colored or electric green, but the method as described in a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last week could help scientists figure out what colors other ancient animals might have been. And it’s all thanks to fossilized pigment. "Since so little is preserved in the fossil record, the color of extinct animals has always been left up to artists' interpretations, and important information regarding behavior has been considered inaccessible," doctoral candidate in geological sciences at Virginia Tech and lead author Caitlin Colleary tells Dunham.

Traces of melanosomes, the organelles that produce the melanin that gives fur and skin their pigment, have been used in the past to figure out what color some dinosaurs and marine reptiles were. Melasomes are shaped differently depending on the color pigment they produce, which makes it easier for researchers to figure out what color a fossilized animal night have been, Dunham writes.

When Vinther first discovered remnants of melanosomes in a fossilized feather in 2008, skeptics argued that he had only identified bacterial remains that were lodged in the fossil. But in the new study, chemical analysis of their structures proved that the object were in fact melanosomes, Cari Romm writes for The Atlantic.

“People had questioned whether you could use the shape of the melanosome to tell anything about the color, because it’s been through a lot. Millions of years in the ground is obviously going to take a toll,” Colleary tells Romm. “So by finding traces of the chemical melanin in association with these structures, we’ve basically confirmed that you can use the shapes of the melanosomes themselves to tell what color something was.”

Thanks to melanosomes, researchers might finally be able to figure out one way or another whether dinosaurs were mottled green or living psychedelic showcases.