The first molecular evidence for a ginger pigment in the fossil record has been described by palaeontologists at University College Cork. Looking at fossil frogs that date back 10 million years, the team discovered the earliest known molecular evidence of phaeomelanin, arguably making these anurans the original gingers.
The discovery will help future palaeontologists to build a picture of the color profiles of extinct animals as it demonstrates how molecular analysis can be useful when studying fossils in revealing pigments like phaeomelanin.
“This finding is so exciting because it puts palaeontologists in a better place to detect different melanin pigments in many more fossils,” said Dr Tiffany Slater of UCC’s School of Biological, Earth, and Environmental Sciences (BEES) and Environmental Research Institute (ERI) in a statement. “This will paint a more accurate picture of ancient animal colour and will answer important questions about the evolution of colours in animals.”
Enduring in the fossil record for 10 million years is no mean feat, which is why the feasibility of drawing much from the biomolecular details has been questionable. However, these ginger frogs show that it can be done, and could open new avenues of investigation for researchers working on ancient specimens.
“Fossils are invariably altered by the ravages of heat and pressure during burial, but that doesn’t mean that we lose all original biomolecular information,” said Prof. Maria McNamara, also of BEES and ERI. “Our fossilization experiments were the key to understanding the chemistry of the fossils, and prove that traces of biomolecules can survive being cooked during the fossilization process. There is huge potential to explore the biochemical evolution of animals using the fossil record, when we account for chemical changes during fossilization.”
Curiously, the phaeomelanin pigment is now toxic to animals, but discovering the earliest known evidence of it is a good step toward understanding what drove the emergence of ginger in the animal kingdom.
“Scientists still don’t know how – or why – phaeomelanin evolved because it is toxic to animals, but the fossil record might just unlock the mystery,” Slater concluded.
The study is published in Nature Communications.
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