Fifty million years ago, some bats died. Today, geologists figured out what color they were.

In a mind-blowing move, scientists from Virginia Tech and the University of Bristol announced Sept. 28 they can now use special microscopic structures to tell the color of fossilized mammals – something thought to be out of reach, previously. Those microscopic structures contain melanin, the same stuff that gives human skin and hair its color. 

The bats, to no one's extreme surprise, were reddish-brown. And that conclusion will help scientists paint a picture of animals throughout the prehistoric record, including fish, frogs, birds, cephalopods (like squid and octopi), and other non-bat mammals.

Scientists originally thought the structures were actually fossilized bacteria, but in 2008, Jakob Vinther of the University of Bristol identified melanosomes (the structures that contain melanin) in a fossilized feather. Now he is the senior author of the bat study.

"It's safe to say that melanin is really all over the place in the fossil record," said Caitlin Colleary, a doctoral student of geosciences in the College of Science at Virginia Tech and lead author of the study. "Now we can confidently fill in some of the original color patterns of these ancient animals."

In fact, melanosomes have already been used to give color to our visions of dinosaurs and extinct marine reptiles. But it's the shape of the melanosome that is the give-away. According to Vinther, if the animal's pigment was black, their melanosome will be shaped like a "little sausage," and if the animal was reddish, it will be shaped like a "little meatball." Presumably, Vintner made these analogies right before lunch.

But scientists don't just have to use shape to identify ancient animals' colors; they can also use chemical markers to compare melanosomes to their cousins in living animals. Until today, though, it was not known whether such technology could extend to the mammalian class.

The color of ancient animals isn't just important for vibrant children's museum displays; it's also a key component to understanding the evolution of species. Since many animals use color to display aggression, kinship, or emotions (the Maldives Octopus putting everyone to shame in this arena), knowing the colors of ancient animals can help us understand how they competed with the world around them.

The study is being published in the Sept. 28 issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Via: Virginia Tech

Photo: Anne Brooke, USFWS | Flickr

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