Researchers have successfully identified the hue of an extinct bat, thus bringing them closer to finally determining the actual colors of prehistoric animals.
The study was published on September 28 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, by experts from the University of Bristol, Virginia Tech and the University of Texas at Austin.
Researchers were able to discover the color of two species of ancient bats, dating back from the Eocene Epoch, approximately 50 million years ago. By analyzing their exceptionally well-preserved fossils, they established that the mammals had been reddish-brown, similar to their modern-day counterparts.
Researchers identified microscopic structures, which some had supposed were just fossilized bacteria. However, eventually, it was proven that they are actually melanosomes, which contain melanin, the substance that gives distinctive coloring to skin, eyes, hair and feathers.
Moreover, scientists found slight traces of melanin, and established a link between the morphology of the structures and the color they helped create. Thus, every melanosome is shaped differently: reddish ones look like “little meatballs”, whereas black ones are like “little sausages”.
“This means that the correlation of melanin color to shape is an ancient invention, which we can use to easily determine color from fossils by simply looking at the melanosomes shape”, explained molecular paleobiologist Jakob Vinther, of the University of Bristol.
This hypothesis had been launched back in 2008, when a team at Yale University noticed such melanosomes in a fossilized feather, and proposed that inferences could be made regarding color based on these shapes.
Nowadays, melanosomes encountered in modern animals have indeed distinctive patterns, which are in correlation with their tint. Critics had suggested that this method wouldn’t be reliable for fossils too, since millions of years had passed and the structures might have been distorted.
Now, however, the theory has been proven correct: the morphology of ancient melanosomes encountered in a fossil is indeed a tell-tale sign of the animal’s shading.
Through this technique, researchers are now confident that they will soon identify the true color of ancient mammals and other species that lived up to 300 millions ago, provided that the fossils are well-preserved.
Discovering the coloring of extinct species will give us new insight into their appearance, and it will also help us understand the evolution of ancient life.
Color patterns are an essential element for communicating and interacting with others, being frequently employed when choosing mates or discouraging attackers. Also, they can paint a more vivid picture of the prehistoric environment where these animals once roamed.
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