Ten million years ago, a green and black snake lay coiled in the Spanish undergrowth. Once, paleontologists would have been limited to the knowledge they could glean from its colorless fossil remains, but now they know what the snake looked like and can guess how it acted. Researchers reporting on March 31 in Current Biology have discovered that some fossils can retain evidence of skin color from multiple pigments and structural colors, aiding research into the evolution and function of color.
So far, scientists filling the ancient-Earth coloring book with pigment have been limited to browns, blacks, and muddy reds when melanin lasts as organic material. No other pigments have been shown to survive fossilization. But this snake's skin was fossilized in calcium phosphate, a mineral that preserves details 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. The pigments themselves are now decayed, but with the cell shapes—specific to each kind of pigment—mineralized, there's enough information to reconstruct their colors.
"When you get fossil tissues preserved with this kind of detail, you're just gobsmacked when you're looking at it under the microscope," says first author Maria McNamara, a paleobiologist at University College Cork. "I was astounded. You almost can't believe what you're seeing."