New Breakthrough Means We Can Finally Detect the Color Red in Ancient Fossils

Artist’s impression of the 3 million-year-old mouse with reddish coloring.
Illustration: Stuart Pond and Greg Stewart/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

Some 3 million years ago, a tiny mouse featuring reddish fur on its back and a white belly scurried across the landscape of what is now Germany. We know this thanks to a remarkable new breakthrough in which reddish color pigment was detected in an ancient fossil—a scientific first.

Fossils with traces of soft tissue are exceptionally rare, making it difficult—if not impossible—for scientists to determine the color of a specimen, the texture of its skin, and other important cosmetic and functional characteristics. Without this information, scientists can’t be sure when certain physical features emerged in a species, and how it evolved over time.

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New research published Tuesday in Nature Communications describes a new technique in which scientists, for the very first time, were able to detect reddish color pigment in a 3 million year old mouse fossil. Using x-ray spectrography, chemical imaging, and other techniques, researchers from the University of Manchester and several other institutions showed that the extinct field mouse had reddish to brown fur on its back and a white belly. Excitingly, the new technique could be used to detect reddish color on other fossils retaining traces of soft tissue.

“The fossils we have studied have the vast potential to unlock many secrets of the original organism. We can reconstruct key facets from life, death and the subsequent events impacting preservation before and after burial,” said Phil Manning, the lead palaeontologist on the paper and a professor at UM, in a press release. “To unpick this complicated fossil chemical archive requires an interdisciplinary team to combine their efforts to crack this problem.”

Indeed, the new study called for experts in physics, paleontology, and chemistry according to Manning. A key challenge was to develop a new technique for discerning red color pigments in an ancient fossil. To do so, the researchers had to map the chemical elements associated with the pigment melanin—the dominant pigment in animals. For the color red, the version of melanin is pheomelanin, and for the color black it’s eumelanin. In fossils, the red pigment is rarer and more difficult to detect, as it’s less stable over vast time scales.

The fossil of the 3-million-year-old extinct field mouse.
Image: University of Gӧttingen
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Prior to the new study, scientists had already developed a technique for detecting eumelanin in ancient fossils. This was done, for example, to show that archaeopteryx, an early bird-like dinosaur, had black feathers. Relatedly, Bristol University paleontologists used a similar approach to show that some dinosaurs had lighter coloring on their undersides and darker coloring on top—a form of camouflage known as countershading.

Three years ago, Nick Edwards, a co-author of the new study and a scientist at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, showed that it was possible to distinguish eumelanin pigments from pheomelanin pigments in modern birds, a discovery that established important groundwork for the new study.

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“We had to build up a strong foundation using modern animal tissue before we could apply the technique to these ancient animals,” said Edwards in a SLAC statement. “It was really a tipping point in using chemical signatures to crack the coloring of ancient animals with soft tissue fossils.”

A false-color image showing the fossil chemistry of the ancient mouse. Blue is calcium in the bones, green is zinc, and red is an organic sulfur. Both zinc and sulfur are associated with the biochemistry of red pigment. Regions rich in both zinc and sulfur are shown in yellow.
Image: SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory
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For the new analysis, the researchers used an extraordinary 3 million-year-old fossil of an extinct field mouse found near the German village of Willershausen. The fossil, dubbed “mighty mouse,” was blasted by X-ray radiation at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource and at Diamond Light Source in the United Kingdom. This allowed the researchers to study the interactions of X-rays with the chemistry of the fossil. The trick was to spot the trace metals that were once present in the soft tissues of the living organisms.

“Where once we saw simply minerals, now we gently unpick the ‘biochemical ghosts’ of long extinct species,” said Manning.

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Observations showed that the trace metals in the fossil bonded with the organic chemicals in the same way it does in living creatures with high concentrations of red pigment in their tissue. This resulted in the identification of pheomelanin in the fossilized mouse fur.

“Finding countershading in a 3 million year old mouse is neat and shows how modern analytical techniques can reveal important information that traditional study approaches would probably have missed,” Michael Pittman, a paleontologist at the University of Hong Kong who wasn’t involved with the new study, told Gizmodo.

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Pittman said his own work in developing Laser Stimulated Fluorescence imaging is similar in this regard, which he used to reveal the first example of countershading in dinosaurs.

Excitingly, this new, non-destructive technique could be used to study other fossils.

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“Resolution of pheomelanin pigment residue should now be possible, using a combination of chemical imaging and X-ray spectroscopy, at least for specimens with an age equal to or less than 3 million years,” the authors wrote in the new study.

Hopefully these future efforts will continue to add color to what was once a monochrome past.

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About the author

George Dvorsky

George is a senior staff reporter at Gizmodo.