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Non-integumentary melanosomes can bias reconstructions of the colours of fossil vertebrates

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Original languageEnglish
Article number2878
JournalNature Communications
Issue number1
Early online date23 Jul 2018
DateAccepted/In press - 8 May 2018
DateE-pub ahead of print - 23 Jul 2018
DatePublished (current) - 1 Dec 2018


The soft tissues of many fossil vertebrates preserve evidence of melanosomes—micron-scale organelles that inform on integumentary coloration and communication strategies. In extant vertebrates, however, melanosomes also occur in internal tissues. Hence, fossil melanosomes may not derive solely from the integument and its appendages. Here, by analyzing extant and fossil frogs, we show that non-integumentary melanosomes have high fossilization potential, vastly outnumber those from the skin, and potentially dominate the melanosome films preserved in some fossil vertebrates. Our decay experiments show that non-integumentary melanosomes usually remain in situ provided that carcasses are undisturbed. Micron-scale study of fossils, however, demonstrates that non-integumentary melanosomes can redistribute through parts of the body if carcasses are disturbed by currents. Collectively, these data indicate that fossil melanosomes do not always relate to integumentary coloration. Integumentary and non-integumentary melanosomes can be discriminated using melanosome geometry and distribution. This is essential to accurate reconstructions of the integumentary colours of fossil vertebrates.

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