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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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  • background? (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Bender_ ( 179208 )

    ok? 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?

    • 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 Alsee ( 515537 ) on Sunday August 03, 2008 @07:54PM (#24460661) Homepage

        Quick! Someone go lobby congress for more science funding on behalf of the Hollywood studios!

        It would probably work.


      • by gregbot9000 ( 1293772 ) <> on Sunday August 03, 2008 @09:10PM (#24461181) Journal
        So this could rule out purple and green dinosaurs, yellow protoceratops, and orange hadrosaurs. What next? You're going to tell me that dinosaurs didn't sing and dance with little children, were taller than 6' 2" and weren't overflowing with uncomfortable kindness?
      • Could this be used to extract full strands of DNA? If so, could the extracted DNA be used to clone the original animal?

    • 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 - []

      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... []

      • Well, no. This is the first for colour, which is a pretty wild first.

        Actually, I think that's not the case, by around a decade. It might be a first for pigmentation, but pigmentation is IIRC only one of 7 different ways of giving an organism "colour". Without digging through the reference books, around 1998 some fossils were discovered that contained structures whose dimensions indicated the presence of diffraction gratings and other elements of "structural colours".

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Now we know what really killed the dinosaurs: Racism. That's right, Jim Crowasaurus was alive and well in the Mezozoic Era. The dinosaurs were a proud race of pigmented creatures that lived peacefully for 160 million years, until their genocide by racist mammals. Oh, sure, racist mammal scientists will claim that it was an asteroid impact or volcanoes that killed the dinosaurs, but it was really a concerted plot by the mammals to push dinosaurs into ghettos, then flood those ghettos with AIDS and crack c

  • by sleeponthemic ( 1253494 ) on Sunday August 03, 2008 @07:17PM (#24460377) Homepage

    I've seen the evidence. Color evolved when Dorothy was whisked away to OZ.

  • Science is so cool (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Telvin_3d ( 855514 ) on Sunday August 03, 2008 @07:34PM (#24460515)

    Science is so awesome, in the most original sense of the word. It inspires awe.
    Look at what these people are doing. They have odd bits of animals that died uncountable millions of years ago (except they figured out ways of counting them) and put the bits back together. And now they think they can figure out what colour they were? That is fantastic!

    Anyone who says that the knowledge of why and how things work somehow ruins the experience has no real wonder in their soul. There is nothing more awe inspiring than pulling back the curtain on some new piece of knowledge.

  • by IHC Navistar ( 967161 ) on Sunday August 03, 2008 @08:36PM (#24460939)

    I found this out a long time ago.....when I took color photographs of fossils!

  • 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 [] of a variety of ages and types and have been known since at least the 1930s (check this book chapter []). 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 [] 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 [] from a famous locality in Germany called Messel []. Here's a picture [], and here's a news article []. 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!

  • they will all turn out to be a shade of brown...


  • by GodfatherofSoul ( 174979 ) on Monday August 04, 2008 @12:11AM (#24462265)

    A couple of days ago, I found myself looking up birds on Wikipedia (don't ask why, my attention wanders) and found an interesting note on blue jays [].

    As with other blue-hued birds, the Blue Jay's coloration is not derived by pigments, but is the result of light refraction due to the internal structure of the feathers; if a blue feather is crushed, the blue disappears as the structure is destroyed. This is referred to as structural coloration.

    I'm not a bird watcher, so I don't know if this is just an anomaly specific to blue birds.

    • iridescence works in a similar way. I've got a shirt that's crimson or blue or blue/green depending on the angle you're at. Some species of butterfly have iridescent wings. Duck feathers sometimes iridesce (particularly neck feathers on mallards and pintails).

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      That explains why blue jays turn black when I crush them!

      Thanks - Now on to crushing cardinals!

  • I was just thinking when I read this, at sometime in the evolutionary history of the earth, color probably didn't matter at all. The organisms were probably just "randomly" colored, that is, evolution didn't favor any specific color. Then eventually, species developed optic sensors, and then began to put meaning to the color, slowly weeding out individuals that displayed a color associated with negative features. So the it wouldn't be surpricing if the actual colors of the first organisms are kind of off-p
    • After millions of years of evolution though..many animals today still maintain a color. Colors have their reasons in the wild. However, many speculate that dinosaurs and animals in that era were artificially weeded out through some catastrophe. Regardless, I think it will be cool to see how these things were colored if they can be accurately rebuilt.
  • by OshMan ( 1246516 )
    Man imagine if Darwin hadn't been inspired by looking at bugs as a youth. Imagine if he hadn't paused to wonder at the variety of finches in the Galapagos because those details didn't solve any "bigger" problems. This is an amazing discovery. Who knows where the knowledge gained here might lead. If nothing else, its a link in the chain of our understanding of the past. And that alone is valuable.
  • Researchers also found a 100 million year old woman's jawbone.

    How did they know it was a woman's?????? ... It was still moving

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