Research

Pigment found in ancient reptiles

An international team of researchers including biology graduate student Ryan Carney reports in Nature Jan. 8, 2014, that they have found pigmentation in the skin of three fossilized marine reptiles. Because an animal’s coloration often has an important role in how it lives, the direct chemical evidence of the pigment eumelanin that they found offers new clues about the evolution and biology of aquatic animals over a span of tens of millions of years. “Recent methods have allowed scientists to reconstruct the original color of fossils by detecting melanin pigments, but until now this has been limited to only feathers,” said Carney, who has studied the feather color of the bird-like dinosaur Archaeopteryx. “Our results provide the very first evidence of pigment molecules in fossilized skin, which therefore opens the door for reconstructing the colors of many more types of extinct creatures.” Carney and his co-authors, many of whom hail from Lund University in Sweden, speculate that the dark coloration they found in a 55-million-year-old leatherback turtle, an 85-million-year-old mosasaur, and a 190-million-year-old ichthyosaur could have helped the creatures stay warmer and provided camouflage.