Reconstructing Carotenoid-Based and Structural Coloration in Fossil Skin

Maria E. McNamara, Patrick J. Orr, Stuart L Kearns, Luis Alcalá, Pere Anadón, Enrique Peñalver

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

24 Citations (Scopus)
505 Downloads (Pure)


Evidence of original coloration in fossils provides insights into the visual communication strategies used by ancient animals and the functional evolution of coloration over time [1–7]. Hitherto, all reconstructions of the colors of reptile integument and the plumage of fossil birds and feathered dinosaurs have been of melanin-based coloration [1–6]. Extant animals also use other mechanisms for producing color [8], but these have not been identified in fossils. Here we report the first examples of carotenoid-based coloration in the fossil record, and of structural coloration in fossil integument. The fossil skin, from a 10 million-year-old colubrid snake from the Late Miocene Libros Lagerstätte (Teruel, Spain) [9, 10], preserves dermal pigment cells (chromatophores)—xanthophores, iridophores, and melanophores—in calcium phosphate. Comparison with chromatophore abundance and position in extant reptiles [11–15] indicates that the fossil snake was pale-colored in ventral regions; dorsal and lateral regions were green with brown-black and yellow-green transverse blotches. Such coloration most likely functioned in substrate matching and intraspecific signaling. Skin replicated in authigenic minerals is not uncommon in exceptionally preserved fossils [16, 17], and dermal pigment cells generate coloration in numerous reptile, amphibian, and fish taxa today [18]. Our discovery thus represents a new means by which to reconstruct the original coloration of exceptionally preserved fossil vertebrates.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1075-1082
Number of pages8
JournalCurrent Biology
Issue number8
Early online date31 Mar 2016
Publication statusPublished - 25 Apr 2016


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