United Kingdom – Scientists have found the fur color of extinct animals based on microscopic structures in fossils that revealed the pigment. According to what they saw, 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 in a press release Jakob Vinther, molecular paleobiologist of the University of Bristol.

Although the findings may not have been considered very surprising, scientists have found a new way to know more about extinct animals. Fossils have revealed key aspects of these creatures, such as its bones, teeth, claws, fur, skin, feathers, and organs, but its color was a more difficult task to come up with.

Scientists were able to determine the fur color of extinct animals based on microscopic structures in fossils that revealed the pigment. Credit: becuo.com

This method was discovered back in 2008 when a 105-million-year-old black-and-white striped feather was found in Brazil. In China, scientists also discovered there was a winged dinosaur with iridescent feathers, called Microraptor.

Vinther has also used this method to study colors in dinosaurs, fish, amphibians and fossil squid ink, mainly because it shed some light on their living conditions. “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,” said Caitlin Colleary, Virginia Tech paleobiologist and lead author of the study, according to Phys.org.

The research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, involved scientists from the U.S., the United Kingdom, Germany, Ethiopia, and Denmark.

How did they figure it out?

The scientists examined the preserved bat fossils that had structures called melanosomes, which contain melanin, the pigment that gives color to skin, hair, feathers and eyes.

“Very importantly, we see that the different melanins are found in organelles of different shapes: reddish melanosomes are shaped like little meatballs, while black melanosomes are shaped like little sausages and we can see that this trend is also present in the fossils,” Vinther said. “This means that this correlation of melanin color to shape is an ancient invention, which we can use to easily tell the color from fossils by simply looking at the melanosomes shape.”

Vinther’s team also determined the structures were not bacterial and that they contained melanin remnants since some skeptics have believed these structures might not be melanosomes, but bacterial remains.

The team of researchers also used an instrument called a time-of-flight secondary ion mass spectrometer to identify the molecular makeup of the fossil melanosomes in order to compare them with modern ones. They later replicated the conditions under which the fossils formed and added it high temperatures and pressures, to identify how the chemistry of melanin changed during millions of years.

Source: PNAS