Posted on August 23, 2019

Maria McNamara, Senior Lecturer and Valentina Rossi, PhD student with a fossil sample at the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences in UCC (Image: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision)

Cork-based scientists are behind a groundbreaking move to rebuild the features of long-dead animals.

In a world first, University College Cork experts have discovered a new way to put flesh on the bones of extinct creatures – 10 million years after their deaths.

They are the most accurate depictions yet of what animals such as frogs, tadpoles and bats – preserved in fossils forever – looked like when alive.

The Rebel County palaeontologists discovered the new way to reconstruct the anatomy of vertebrate animals by analysing the chemistry of fossilised melanosomes (tiny granules in their cells) from internal organs.

The study, published in a US journal, was led by UCC’s Valentina Rossi and her supervisor Dr Maria McNamara, backed by an international team of chemists from the US and Japan.

The team used cutting-edge “synchrotron techniques” to analyse the chemistry of the fossil and modern melanosomes using X-rays, allowing them to look inside the anatomy of fossils and uncover hidden features.

Until recently, most studies on fossil melanin have focused on the skin and feathers, whereas here the pigment is linked to visible colour.

Unexpectedly, the new study also showed that melanin is abundant in internal organs of modern amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals, and their fossil counterparts.

Dr McNamara said: “This discovery is remarkable in that it opens up a new avenue for reconstructing the anatomy of ancient animals.

“In some of our fossils we can identify skin, lungs, the liver, the gut, the heart, and even connective tissue.

“What’s more, this suggests that melanin had very ancient functions in regulating metal chemistry in the body going back tens, if not hundreds, of millions of years.”

The team made the initial discovery of internal melanosomes last year on fossil frogs.

Written by: Niall Moonan of Irish Mirror Ireland

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