Sunday 4 December 2016

Irish scientist's fossil study to reveal colours of dinosaurs

Published 01/04/2016 | 02:30

Dr Maria McNamara, with Bertie, an 8ft Boa Constrictor who has the same colouring as the 10-million-year-old snake. Photo: Michael MacSweeney
Dr Maria McNamara, with Bertie, an 8ft Boa Constrictor who has the same colouring as the 10-million-year-old snake. Photo: Michael MacSweeney

What colour was a T-Rex or Triceratops? Irish researchers might just have found the answer.

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Scientists have solved a 10 million-year-old mystery over how to detect the original colours of fossilised animals - including dinosaurs and early mammals.

The research by University College Cork (UCC) official Dr Maria McNamara is set to prove a landmark breakthrough for scientists trying to unlock the secrets of long-vanished creatures.These include dinosaurs, early mammals and reptiles.

Dr McNamara, of UCC's School of Biological and Earth Sciences, published her findings in the prestigious journal 'Current Biology'.

Studies revealed that some fossils can retain evidence of skin colour from multiple pigments, aiding research into both the evolution and function of colour.

Dr McNamara previously played a critical role in showing how early dinosaurs had feather-like tufts - underlining the link between dinosaurs and modern birds.

Her primary study was on the fossilised remains of a snake which died in the area of modern Spain some 10 million years ago. She found that the colours present were far more vivid than the browns, blacks and muddy-reds that scientists for many years presumed dominated the ancient landscape.

The snake she was studying was fossilised in calcium phosphate, a mineral which preserves detail on a subcellular level.

"The fossilized snakeskin maintained the unique shapes of different types of pigment cells, which would have created yellows, greens, blacks, browns, and iridescence while the animal was alive," she said.

"When you get fossil tissues preserved with this kind of detail, you're just gob-smacked when you're looking at it under the microscope," she admitted.

"I was astounded. You almost can't believe what you're seeing."

The fossil was unearthed in the Libros site in Spain.

The UCC academic said the research is exciting because it offers the possibility to allow the colours of other fossilised animals to now be confirmed.

Irish Independent

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