| WASHINGTON, Sept 28
WASHINGTON, Sept 28 Fossils can do a good job of
revealing key aspects of an extinct creature: its bones, teeth,
claws, even soft tissue like fur, skin, feathers, organs and
sometimes remains of its last meal in the gut. Knowing its color
has been a trickier question.
But scientists have figured out how to answer it based on
microscopic structures in fossils that divulge pigment, and on
Monday disclosed for the first time the fur color of extinct
mammals: two of the earliest-known bats.
The bats, called Palaeochiropteryx and Hassianycteris, were
a reddish brown.
"Well, the bats are brown. It might not be a big surprise,
but that's what these 49-million-year-old bats are. So they
looked perfectly like modern bats," said molecular
paleobiologist Jakob Vinther of Britain's University of Bristol.
Vinther also has used the method to study colors in
dinosaurs, fish, amphibians and fossil squid ink. The method was
first described in 2008 regarding a 105-million-year-old
black-and-white striped feather from Brazil and also showed that
a winged dinosaur from China, Microraptor, boasted iridescent
"Biologists know a lot about living animals because of
color: what sort of environment they live in, how they protect
themselves or how they attract mates," Virginia Tech
paleobiologist Caitlin Colleary said.
"But since so little is preserved in the fossil record, the
color of extinct animals has always been left up to artists'
interpretations, and important information regarding behavior
has been considered inaccessible."
The bats lived along a lake in the middle of a tropical
forest in Germany. The scientists examined the beautifully
preserved bat fossils that retained structures called
Melanosomes contain melanin, the pigment that gives color to
skin, hair, feathers and eyes. They possess distinctive shapes
that indicate pigment color.
"Reddish brown melanosomes are little tiny meatballs around
500 nanometers in diameter, while black melanosomes are
elongated sausages about a micron in length," Vinther said.
Skeptics had questioned whether the structures were
bacterial remnants, not melanosomes. But Vinther's team for the
first time got chemical data on the fossils, determining the
structures were not bacterial and that they contained melanin
"I think we're just scratching the surface in our ability to
extract information like this from the fossil record," Colleary
said. "As technology continues to advance, we'll keep finding
information in fossils that we don't even know is there today."
The research was published in the Proceedings of the
National Academy of Sciences.
(Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Sandra Maler)