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Researchers Find Color In Fossils 77

Science News has a look at the latest paleontological fashion: what may be the remains of pigment in fossilized feathers 100 million years old. The material in question is believed to be black melanin, on the evidence of its similarity in scanning-microscope images to the modern pigment. The researchers are hopeful of identifying other varieties of melanin, which provide red or yellow coloration; and also possibly of spotting fossilized nanostructures of melanin that create iridescent patterns in some modern animals.
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Researchers Find Color In Fossils

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  • Re:background? (Score:5, Informative)

    by ksd1337 ( 1029386 ) on Sunday August 03, 2008 @07:03PM (#24460269)
    This will help us in creating more accurate simulated images of these animals.
  • by kestasjk ( 933987 ) on Sunday August 03, 2008 @07:40PM (#24460553) Homepage
    "Unweaving the Rainbow" by Dawkins is all about this (The title is based on someone who said that by explaining how rainbows form Newton made them less wonderful)
  • Re:background? (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday August 03, 2008 @07:40PM (#24460561)

    So why is this so special? I understand melanin may degrade easily, but hasn't a lot of similar organic matter been found in fossils earlier?

    Well, no. This is the first for colour, which is a pretty wild first. Not to mention that getting anything more than bone imprints is pretty new and exciting as well.

    Quick review of how fossils form - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fossil#Types_of_preservation [wikipedia.org]

    Mostly fossils are '3d rock shadows' of something imprinted millions of years ago. So while you understand melanin "may degrade easily", combine that understanding with the knowledge that these feather fossils are from something that died approximately *100 million years ago*. It's pretty wild to get colour info from that. Like much, much harder than getting useful specifications from Marketing.

    And I guess it's special for /. because the BBC covered it a month ago...
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/7495961.stm [bbc.co.uk]

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday August 03, 2008 @08:30PM (#24460903)

    No, but it may change the color of the dinosaur on the cereal box.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday August 03, 2008 @08:39PM (#24460973)

    Usually there is no hint of the original colour preserved in fossils, but colour patterns have been found in plenty of fossils [sepmonline.org] of a variety of ages and types and have been known since at least the 1930s (check this book chapter [google.ca]). Unfortunately there are no pictures in these web sources. You'll have to look up the sources on paper, sorry.

    What sort of things preserve colour patterns? There are cone-shaped nautiloids from the Devonian of Germany with zig-zag and linear stripe patterns, snail and other shells [jstor.org] with stripes or spots, insects from Brazil (Cretaceous) and Utah (Eocene) whose wings have preserved colour patterns, and, as the article hints, bird feathers with colour patterns have been known for decades. Because they are only patterns, it isn't known what the original colours were (for all we know it could have been a boring brown versus grey or something exotic like green and purple), but it's better than nothing, and even finding the patterns is quite rare.

    What's news in the posted article is only the part about the possibility of melanin or something derived from it being preserved. So, it's a bit of progress on what, exactly, is being preserved in these colour patterns.

    There's one instance I know of where the actual colour of the ancient creature is preserved as a fossil: a beetle [jstor.org] from a famous locality in Germany called Messel [wikipedia.org]. Here's a picture [uni-bonn.de], and here's a news article [nationalgeographic.com]. As seen in quite a few modern beetles, the colour isn't caused by pigment but by irridescence (i.e. light interference) due to the microscopic structure of the insect's wing covers. It's analogous in some ways to the rainbow of colours you see on the bottom of a CD due to the pits on the surface. In animals this is sometimes called "structural colour". The preservation at Messel is so good that this fine detail was preserved, and the beetle therefore still has it's colour visible!

  • by techno-vampire ( 666512 ) on Sunday August 03, 2008 @08:46PM (#24461017) Homepage
    Warning: do not click on the link in the above post unless you really want to be Rickrolled.

APL hackers do it in the quad.