STATES CHRONICLE – Most people expect paleontologists to be able to determine a wide array of facts about the animals whose fossils they are studying. However, they’d be surprised with how little information these experts actually manage to gather from the average, run-of-the-mill fossil.
This is largely because most features of the animal that could be picked up from the fossils are lost with the passage of time. But oh, so occasionally, a fossil is recovered that is preserved in such a way that it allows for more information to be picked up from it than it usually could have. And the advancement of modern technology has started to make these things easier.
With the help of new technology and a stroke of luck thanks to how the fossil was stored, a team of researchers from Ireland reveals the true colors of a ten million year old snake. The achievement wouldn’t have been possible had the fossil not been preserved in the way that it was.
Usually, scientists can’t make out what color was an animal to which a fossil belonged because of the damage of time. The only colors that could be identified were blacks, browns, and muddy reds, as those are the only pigments to survive the passage of time. That is unless the animal is fossilized in calcium phosphate.
Calcium phosphate, a mineral, can preserve details on a subcellular level. So it wasn’t the actual color of the snake that survived fossilization, but instead, what survived was the shape of the cells specific to each pigment. With that, the scientists had enough information to reconstruct the colors of the animal.
After carefully analyzing the pigment cells, the team concluded that the snake had three primary pigments that gave it its colors, all of them in different combinations – iridophores, responsible for iridescence, xanthophores, responsible for pterin and carotenoid pigments, and melanophores, responsible for melanin.
This all adds up to a snake that was slightly iridescent, was primarily a mottled green and black, and had a pale green underside. But the researchers can find out so much more about the creature now that they determined what color it was. This is because in nature, color is usually highly suggestive of behavior. So the scientists will be able to find out a lot about how the creature lived based on its pigments.
Even more importantly, the fact that now the scientific world knows that fossils preserved in calcium phosphate can reveal the real colors of the animals they belonged to, many other fossils will start being reanalyzed. This will surely prove a huge trove of information for everyone involved, as many fossils that were previously thought to have given all the information they had will be once again investigated.
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