For the first time ever, researchers have detected chemical traces of the red pigment in the incredibly preserved fossil of a now-extinct animal.
Dubbed "mighty mouse," the 3-million-year-old creature was unearthed in the German village of Willerhausen.
Analyzing Mighty Mouse
The international collaboration, which is led by researchers from the University of Manchester, used X-ray spectroscopy and multiple imaging techniques, to analyze mighty mouse. They found that the creature, which they say is not unlike in appearance as a regular field mouse, had red fur and a white belly.
The technology used in the study published in the journal Nature Communications on Tuesday, May 21, can change the way scientists study fossils.
"Life on Earth has littered the fossil record with a wealth of information that has only recently been accessible to science," stated Phil Manning, a professor at the University of Manchester and a co-author of the study. "A suite of new imaging techniques can now be deployed, which permit us to peer deep into the chemical history of a fossil organism and the processes that preserved its tissues. Where once we saw simply minerals, now we gently unpick the 'biochemical ghosts' of long extinct species."
The research team reported that the fossil still had most of its soft tissue preserved. Its head, feet, and tail can still be recognized.
Red Pigment Detected For The First Time
Color, however, is a little more difficult to determine in species that have long been extinct. Only 10 years ago did scientists isolate the chemical signature of black pigment in a fossil. Red is even more challenging because it is less stable.
To "see" mighty mouse's color, the researchers used the powerful X-rays from SLAC's Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource. The X-rays detected trace metals in the pigment, confirming that the mouse had red fur.
"Our hope is that these results will mean that we can become more confident in reconstructing extinct animals and thereby add another dimension to the study of evolution," added Roy Wogelius, a professor of geochemistry at the University of Manchester and also an author of the study.
Color could reveal an animal's evolutionary history, showcasing how it adapted to its environment to survive. The technique could be used to trace back the evolution of a creature that has gone extinct a long time ago.