Fossil pigments reveal millions-of-years-old sea monsters had black skin

Thursday, 9 January 2014 - 11:06am IST | Agency: ANI

Scientists have revealed the color of three multi-million-year old marine reptiles, suggesting that the pigment shows that these animals were, at least partially, dark-coloured in life, which is likely to have contributed to more efficient thermoregulation, as well as providing means for camouflage and UV protection.

During the Age of the dinosaurs, huge reptiles, such as mosasaurs and ichthyosaurs, ruled the seas. Previously, scientists could only guess what colours these spectacular animals had; however, pigment preserved in fossilised skin has now been analysed at SP Technical Research Institute of Sweden and MAX IV Laboratory, Lund University, Sweden.

The unique soft tissue remains were obtained from a 55 million-year-old leatherback turtle, an 85 million-year-old mosasaur and a 196 million-year-old ichthyosaur. This is the first time that the colour scheme of any extinct marine animal has been revealed.

Johan Lindgren, a scientist at Lund University in Sweden, and he is the leader of the international research team that has studied the fossils, together with colleagues from Denmark, England and the USA.

The most sensational aspect of the investigation is that it can now be established that these ancient marine reptiles were, at least partially, dark-coloured in life, something that probably contributed to more efficient thermoregulation, as well as providing means for camouflage and protection against harmful UV radiation.

The analysed fossils are composed of skeletal remains, in addition to dark skin patches containing masses of micrometre-sized, oblate bodies. These microbodies were previously interpreted to be the fossilised remains of those bacteria that once contributed to the decomposition and degradation of the carcasses.

However, by studying the chemical content of the soft tissues, Lindgren and his colleagues are now able to show that they are in fact remnants of the animals’ own colours, and that the micrometre-sized bodies are fossilised melanosomes, or pigment-containing cellular organelles.

The study is published in the journal Nature. 




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