UCC researcher reveals mystery behind colours of 10m-year-old snake

31 Mar 2016

UCC paleobiologist Dr Maria McNamara, with Bertie, an 8ft long 14-year-old boa constrictor who has the same colouring as the 10m-year-old snake. Image via Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

A researcher from University College Cork (UCC) has turned back the clock on a 10m-year-old fossilised snake to reveal its colour, despite the fossil itself being completely colourless.

The snake, analysed by the UCC team led by Dr Maria McNamara, was one that would have roamed the undergrowth of modern-day Spain, but since its original discovery the colour of its skin was a mystery, with only fossilised evidence remaining.

Now, however, thanks to a breakthrough in archaeology made by the team, we know that some fossils can retain evidence of skin colour from multiple pigments and structural colours depending on the conditions in which they fossilised.

This particular snake has been determined to have green and black skin, thanks to the fact that this snake’s skin was fossilised in calcium phosphate, a mineral that preserves details on a subcellular level.

Snake illustration

An illustration of how the snake would have looked. Image via Jim Robbins/UCC

‘I was astounded’

Until now, researchers trying to conclude possible pigmentation of skin of extinct or prehistoric animals have been limited to a select number of colours, specifically browns, blacks, and muddy reds when melanin lasts as organic material.

While the actual pigments have decayed entirely in this snake discovery, the different types of cells that contained the pigments remained, indicating the colours yellow, green, black and brown.

To make the discovery, McNamara and her team her team viewed the fossil under a high-powered scanning electron microscope and then proceeded to match the shapes up with pigment cells in modern snakes to determine what colours they might have produced.

“When you get fossil tissues preserved with this kind of detail, you’re just gobsmacked when you’re looking at it under the microscope,” said McNamara, who is a palaeobiologist at the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences at UCC. “I was astounded. You almost can’t believe what you’re seeing.”

The team has now published its findings in the journal Current Biology.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic