This 3-million-year-old mouse just gave scientists the key to decoding ancient red pigments

Science | AAAS | 5/21/2019 | Staff
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Figuring out the colors of fossilized animals used to be complete guesswork—even in the rare finds containing bits of feathers, scales, or fur, the original hues in such soft tissues are usually long gone. Now, for the first time, researchers have been able to identify the chemical signature of the pigment that gives red hair its color in the fossil of an ancient mouse—using a new technique that leaves precious fossil specimens intact.

“The mouse fossil, it looks nice. It’s a beautiful specimen. But then you scan it, and it’s this eureka moment,” says Roy Wogelius, a geochemist at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom, who with his colleagues developed the technique.

Variety - Techniques - Scientists - Hints - Colors

Using a variety of techniques, scientists have been able to gather hints about the colors of fossils including dinosaur feathers and dinosaur eggs. A decade ago, scientists used high-energy synchrotron x-rays to identify the key chemical signatures of a pigment called eumelanin, which colors skin, hair, and other tissues black, brown, and gray. But its sister pigment called pheomelanin, which gives skin and hair a pink or red hue, has been tougher to nail down.

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Part of the problem, Wogelius says, was that relatively little was known about the chemistry of the pigment in modern-day tissues. In work published in 2016, he and his colleagues looked carefully at the different trace metals in pigments from modern feathers and found that whereas eumelanin contains copper, pheomelanin contains sulfur and zinc. They wondered whether tracing those metals might allow them to find signs of...
(Excerpt) Read more at: Science | AAAS
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