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.
Read more: SMITHSONIAN.COM
Paleontologists have just uncovered the remarkably pristine cranium of an ancient bird along with three partial skulls. These remains combine modern and primitive features in surprising ways to capture a fascinating moment in avian evolution.
The Ichthyornis fossils starkly contrast the skeletons of current birds. Modern birds have less musculature in their jaw and larger braincases than their predecessors. Whereas today’s birds have lightweight, toothless snouts, the fossils have large, toothed upper jaws—more comparable to those of dinosaurs. The Ichthyornis specimens even have openings in the top of their skulls, just like in T. rex fossils, to allow for large muscles.
Beelzebufo ampinga, so named for the ancient deity often called the "Lord of the Flies," was a devilish frog indeed. The species, which lived on the island of Madagascar around 70 million years ago, was likely the biggest frog that ever hopped about the Earth (National Geographic describes it, delightfully, as "beach-ball-size"). And according to new research on its modern cousins published in Scientific Reports, Beelzebufo ampinga may have had jaws powerful enough to obliterate small dinosaurs.
Paleontologists in Argentina have uncovered a dinosaur unlike anything ever seen before. Alive some 140 million years ago, these majestic herbivores featured long, forward-pointing spikes running along their necks and backs. These spikes may have served a defensive role, but their exact purpose now presents a fascinating new mystery.
NATURE.COM Bajadasaurus pronuspinax
One fish, two fish, crayfish—new fish?
Though it might sound like the plotline of a Dr. Seuss book, that’s what actually happened to the threespine stickleback fishes of Canada’s Enos Lake. For thousands of years, two distinct species of these spiny silver sea creatures—known as the benthic sticklebacks and the limnetic sticklebacks, both descended from a single species—lived in peaceful coexistence. The former stayed near the floor, where they fed on bottom-dwellers; the latter swam up near the sun, eating insects at the surface. Their habitats and behaviors were so different that they rarely met, and never interbred. And all was well.
But then something strange happened: The two species of fish once again became one. How?
The creature, which had not been seen anywhere in one hundred years was photographed by British wildlife photographer Will Burrard-Lucas.
The ultra-rare Leopard was spotted by the British photographer as it was prowling around Laikipia Wilderness Camp in Kenya, during a full moon looming above.
The Leopard which has a condition known as melanism is seen in the photographs hunting for prey. Its eyes irradiate a magical color, while leopard-like spots are barely seen on its dark coat due to the condition.
As Mr. Burrard-Lucas explains on his blog, to snap images of the rare animal, he used a plethora of camera traps each consisting of a Camtraptions wireless motion sensor, a high-quality DSLR camera, and two or three flashes.
He left the cameras snapping images for 24 hours.
5 years ago: 50 million year-old lizard skin. @sidperkins @sciencemagazine.
"...Discovered in the 1980s, the lizard fossil is one of only two known examples of reptile skin unearthed from the Green River Formation of the western United States, a finely layered mudstone best known for its exquisite fish fossils. Even though soft tissues are incredibly rare in the fossil record, being preserved only in unusual environmental circumstances, this lizard fossil survived the ages, says Phillip Manning, a vertebrate paleontologist at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom. It's easy to see the remnants of individual scales in the skin, but the rock doesn't include any visible remains of bones or other hard tissue—a combination that led researchers to believe that the skin had been shed by a living creature and then preserved.
But recently, to learn more about the fossil, Manning and his colleagues turned to a relatively new x-ray analysis technique—dubbed synchrotron rapid scanning x-ray fluorescence—with surprising results. Instead of enabling scientists to see inside or through rock, he notes, the intense x-rays produced by this technique cause particular elements or compounds to fluoresce, revealing previously unrecognized chemical remnants that are invisible to the naked eye but persist in the rocks at very low concentrations.
When the researchers illuminated the fossil with x-rays that cause sulfur and copper to fluoresce, the skin remnants showed up in remarkable detail. But when they lit the fossil with x-rays that cause phosphorus to glow, the technique revealed many small spots in the lizard's head where that element was concentrated—regularly spaced spots that appear where the creature's jaws would have been. The arrangement prompted the researchers to interpret the traces of phosphorus as the chemical remnants of teeth. Because lizards don't shed their teeth when they molt their skin, the technique reveals the unusual fossil to be the partially preserved remnants of a full carcass, the researchers report online this month in Applied Physics A: Materials Science & Processing.
The fossil's state of preservation reveals a lot about the environmental conditions where the carcass ended up, presumably after being washed into the lake soon after it died. Lake-bottom waters at this particular spot likely had little or no oxygen, enabling preservation of the skin. But the waters apparently were also acidic, which totally dissolved the creature's bones and left only scant traces of its teeth. The chemical vestiges of the teeth were most likely preserved because tooth enamel typically has a low concentration of organic matter and large crystals of phosphate minerals, both of which render the teeth more resistant to decay.
The x-ray technique the team used "will open the curtain to a whole new way of studying extinct animals and the conditions in which they lived and died," Manning says. Another benefit of the approach, he notes, is that it's nondestructive...."