A Moment of Science

Using X-Rays To Find The Color Of Fossilized Skin And Feathers

Researchers found that if they bombard fossils with a special type of intense x-ray, they can find the pigment's location.

x ray of a frog

Photo: Remy Saglier (Flickr)

In the future, scientists hope to use melanin to discover color using x-rays.

Did you know scientists are using x-rays to find out the color of fossilized skin and feathers?

Lookin’ At Melanin

Scientists started with the pigment melanin. It’s the molecule that gives skin, hair and feathers their dark colors. It’s stored in little pigment sacks called melanosomes.

Some people have darker skin than others because they have more melanosomes. When a person tans, that’s because the cell is making more pigment.

Finding The Pigment’s Location

Melanin pigment binds to copper and other metals. Even though an animal dies and its skin and feathers fossilize, metals don’t degrade over time. Researchers found that if they bombard fossils with a special type of intense x ray produced at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource National Accelerator, they can find the pigment’s location.

So far, they’ve found dark color patterns in bird, fish and squid fossils. They’ve also discovered that the oldest beaked bird, which lived almost 120 million years ago, had black feathers on its head, body and breast. Before this, artists who made conceptual drawings of the bird had to make up its color.

What About Other Colors Like Red And Yellow?

This is a brand new technique, so scientists can only identify melanin right now. I’m sure they’ll figure out how to identify other colors soon.

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