To the untrained eye, most fossils don’t appear to be bursting with color. The first scientific analysis of fossil color was published only a decade ago, and until recently, determining the color palette of the prehistoric world seemed an insurmountable task.
Maria McNamara, a paleontologist at University College Cork in Ireland, is trying to piece together the fossil evidence to paint a colorful picture of the past. When people think of paleontology, they often think of hard teeth and bone, but the softer parts of animals, like skin, muscle tissue and internal organs, can be preserved in the fossil record, too. It's much rarer, of course, because the squishy stuff usually rots away, but soft tissues are exactly the kind of specimens McNamara is looking for. She studies tissues from insects and vertebrates in order to envision what these critters looked like and how they interacted with their environments—what their predators were, where they lived, what their mating habits may have been and more.
McNamara will be discussing her work to find the color remnants in fossils at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History’s "Life’s Greatest Hits: Key Events in Evolution" symposium on Friday, March 29, in Washington DC. Ahead of her talk, Smithsonian.com spoke to McNamara to learn more about the colors of the ancient world.
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