UCC scientists make new discovery on colours of dinosaurs

Scientists will be forced to rethink their theories on what colours dinosaurs were following a discovery made by an Irish university-led team.

The research, led by University College Cork palaeontologist Maria McNamara, discovered new sources of the pigment melanin that will see scientists reexamine how they reconstruct the colour of fossil birds, reptiles, and dinosaurs.

“It’s absolutely critical that we understand the origins of melanosomes in fossils if we want to produce accurate reconstructions of the colours of ancient animals,” Dr McNamara said.

The team studied internal tissues in modern frogs with powerful microscopes and chemical techniques to show that internal melanosomes are highly abundant.

“This means that these internal melanosomes could make up the majority of the melanosomes preserved in some fossils,” said Mike Benton from the University of Bristol, who also collaborated on the project.

The team also used decay experiments and analysed fossils to show that the internal melanosomes can leak into other body parts during the fossilisation process, “like snowflakes inside a snow globe”, according to another collaborator on the project, Patrick Orr from University College Dublin.

There is a way, however, to tell the difference between melanosomes from internal organs and the skin.

“The size and shape of skin melanosomes is usually distinct from those in internal organs,” Dr McNamara said.

“This will allow us to produce more accurate reconstructions of the original colours of ancient vertebrates.”

Many recent studies of fossil colour have assumed fossilised granules of melanin — melanosomes — come from the skin.

However new evidence shows that other tissues — such as the liver, lungs, and spleen — can also contain melanosomes, suggesting that fossil melanosomes may not provide information on fossil colour.

The team used a unique chemical process for detection of melanin in modern and fossil materials developed by collaborators Kazumasa Wakamatsu and Shosuke Ito from Fujita Health University in Japan.

Dr McNamara was also helped in her research by her PhD student, Valentina Rossi, as well as an international team of palaeontologists from Britain and Japan.

Full details of the study will be published today in the journal Nature Communications.


The long-tailed tit’s nest is an architectural marvel.Richard Collins: Altruism of the long-tailed tits or not

The flight that brought us home to Ireland after our seven months sojourn in the Canary Islands (half our stay intended, half not) was the most comfortable I’ve experienced in years. With a large plane almost entirely to yourself, you could again pretend you were somebody.Damien Enright: Wonderful to see the green, green grass of home

IRISH folklore is replete with stories of priests praying for fine weather to help farmers save their crops in wet summers. However, the opposite could soon be happening when divine powers may have to be invoked to provide rain. And not just for farmers.Donal Hickey: Praying for rain — in Ireland

Geography is often the defining factor for the destiny of an island. Those islands that lie close to the shore have often been snapped up by interests on the mainland and their morphology changed to something completely different.The Islands of Ireland: Tarbert morphed onto the mainland

More From The Irish Examiner