Scientists Uncover Molecular Clues to Ginger Pigmentation in 10-Million-Year-Old Amphibians

by Manuel Costa
6 comments
phaeomelanin in ancient amphibians

A false-color electron microscopy representation of a zebra finch feather displays the feather cortex (depicted in blue) and melanosomes (particles rich in melanin, portrayed in orange). A scale bar denotes 1 µm. Attribution: Dr. Tiffany Slater

Researchers in the field of paleontology have identified the first molecular traces of phaeomelanin, a pigment responsible for ginger hues. “This will contribute to a more precise understanding of the colors of prehistoric animals.”

The presence of phaeomelanin, which is now toxic to animals, suggests this discovery could be an initial phase in comprehending its evolutionary history.

A team of paleontologists from University College Cork (UCC) has documented the first molecular traces of phaeomelanin, a pigment responsible for ginger coloring, in the fossil records.

The recent study details the retention of molecular remnants of the pigment phaeomelanin in amphibians that lived 10 million years ago, thereby enhancing the set of tools paleontologists use to reconstruct the authentic colors of extinct species.

The research was published on October 6 in the scientific journal Nature Communications and was spearheaded by Dr. Tiffany Slater and Prof. Maria McNamara, both affiliated with UCC’s School of Biological, Earth, and Environmental Sciences (BEES) and Environmental Research Institute (ERI). Collaborations included scientists from Fujita Health University in Japan, Linyi University in China, and Lund University in Sweden.

A depiction summarizing the principal discoveries of the Slater et al., 2023 study appears in Nature Communications. Attribution: Science Graphic Design

According to Dr. Slater, “This remarkable discovery empowers paleontologists to identify various types of melanin pigments in a broader array of fossils.

This will lead to more faithful reconstructions of the coloration of ancient animals and address significant questions concerning the evolution of pigmentation in fauna. The origins and evolutionary purpose of phaeomelanin, a pigment that is toxic to animals, remain unknown, but answers might be found in the fossil records.”

The research team conducted extensive lab tests on black, ginger, and white feathers to examine how phaeomelanin pigments decay during the fossilization process, thereby corroborating their fossil chemistry interpretations.

The senior author of the study, Prof. McNamara, stated, “Though fossils inevitably undergo transformations due to heat and pressure over time, it does not imply the complete loss of original biomolecular data. Our fossilization experiments were instrumental in decoding the chemical nature of the fossils, confirming that remnants of biomolecules can withstand the extreme conditions during fossilization.

“There is an immense opportunity to investigate the biochemical evolution of animals through the fossil records, particularly when considering chemical transformations that occur during the fossilization process.”

Reference: “Taphonomic Experiments Unveil Genuine Molecular Markers for Fossil Melanins and Confirm Phaeomelanin Preservation in Fossils,” published on 6 October 2023 in Nature Communications.
DOI: 10.1038/s41467-023-40570-w

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about phaeomelanin in ancient amphibians

What is the main discovery of the research led by University College Cork’s team?

The primary discovery is the identification of the first molecular traces of phaeomelanin, a pigment that produces ginger coloration, in amphibian fossils that are 10 million years old. This adds a new dimension to paleontological methods for reconstructing the original colors of extinct species.

Who led the research and who were the collaborators?

The research was spearheaded by Dr. Tiffany Slater and Prof. Maria McNamara, both affiliated with University College Cork’s School of Biological, Earth, and Environmental Sciences and Environmental Research Institute. The collaborators included scientists from Fujita Health University in Japan, Linyi University in China, and Lund University in Sweden.

What is the significance of finding phaeomelanin in ancient fossils?

The discovery is crucial for several reasons. Firstly, it allows for a more accurate reconstruction of the colors of prehistoric animals. Secondly, it opens up new avenues for understanding the evolution of phaeomelanin, a pigment that is toxic to present-day animals.

How did the researchers verify their findings?

The team conducted extensive laboratory experiments on black, ginger, and white feathers. These experiments were designed to track how phaeomelanin pigments degrade during the fossilization process, thereby corroborating their interpretations of the fossil chemistry.

What are the broader implications of this study?

The study implies immense potential for exploring the biochemical evolution of animals, particularly when considering chemical changes that occur during fossilization. It enriches the toolset of paleontologists, enabling them to analyze more aspects of extinct animals, including their coloration.

Where was the study published?

The study was published in the scientific journal Nature Communications on October 6.

What is phaeomelanin, and why is it important to the study?

Phaeomelanin is a type of melanin pigment that produces ginger coloration. The study is important because it marks the first time molecular traces of phaeomelanin have been found in the fossil record, which could be a key to unlocking its evolutionary history.

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6 comments

Robert Thompson October 6, 2023 - 11:50 am

fascinating stuff. It’s like we’re taking a step back in time. but why is phaeomelanin toxic now? Evolution’s a mystery, ain’t it?

Reply
Sara Williams October 6, 2023 - 3:22 pm

I’m blown away by the level of detail these scientists are able to get from fossils. and the international collab makes it even more impressive.

Reply
Karen Johnson October 6, 2023 - 3:27 pm

this is huge, especially for understanding animal evolution. Can’t wait to see where this leads. Is there gonna be a follow-up study?

Reply
Emily Davis October 6, 2023 - 4:01 pm

This is a game changer for paleontologists. Finally they have more tools to understand what ancient animals really looked like.

Reply
Mike O'Brien October 6, 2023 - 9:26 pm

Never thought frog fossils could tell us so much. Science never ceases to amaze. Whats next, dino DNA?

Reply
John Smith October 7, 2023 - 6:59 am

Wow, this is mind-blowing! Who knew that we could get so much info from 10-million-year-old frogs. Science is truly amazing.

Reply

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