Irish palaeontologist to depict how colours change in fossils at London expo

2 Jul 2013

A 49m-year-old fossil beetle from Messel, Germany. Very fine layers in the beetle's tough outer coating produce the iridescent blue colours of the beetle. These structural colours gradually change over millions of years. Credit: Dr Maria McNamara

Dr Maria McNamara, a geology lecturer based at University College Cork (UCC), is in London this week to showcase her paleontological research on the colours of fossilised animals at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition. One of the aims of McNamara’s research is to share more insights on the evolution of colour in ancient animals.

The Royal Society exhibition, which kicked off today, is one of the UK’s leading forums for public engagement with science. It attracts some 15,000 visitors each year.

The exhibition involves a highly competitive selection process, with only 22 research groups chosen to host an exhibit this year.

This year McNamara, who hails from Clonmel, Co Tipperary, was chosen to lead a research team at the event. She is a lecturer in geology in the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences at UCC.

Led by McNamara, the exhibit team of 18 palaeontologists includes scientists from Ireland, China and the US.

McNamara’s exhibit is titled ‘Prehistoric colours in fossil insects and feathers’. She said her team’s showcase will feature interactive fossilisation experiments, a high-tech scanning electron microscope, a fossilisation video game, and genuine fossils, including rare colourful fossil insects, birds and a feathered dinosaur.

Imagevia Dr Maria McNamara’s website

Hot topics in paleontological circles

“Not many people know that fossils can show traces of colour. Our exhibit is a unique opportunity to excite thousands of people by science, especially hot topics in palaeontology such as fossil colour,” said McNamara.

Using modern insects and feathers, McNamara and her team have conducted experiments to measure the effects of pressure, temperature and chemicals on colours. The idea of this is to see if the colour of fossilised animals changes over time, as well as determining why this happens.

The researchers then examine fossils using powerful electron microscopes and identify which fossils have accurately preserved their colours.

McNamara and her team believe this research will help other scientists identify important changes in the evolution of colour and how it was used by animals in the past.

“This exhibit will create a lasting positive impression of science on the general public, attracting future scientists, and will raise the profile of scientific research at UCC,” said Prof John O’Halloran, head of the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences at UCC.

People can check out the website featuring images of McNamara’s team’s research here.

The website also features the fossilisation video game, video interviews, and links to the exhibit blog.

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Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic