The Color Of Ancient Marine Reptiles Discovered In The Depths In Multi-Million-Year Old Fossils

By Ajit Jha on January 23, 2014 1:44 PM EST

Leatherback Turtle
The multi-million-year-old fossil remains of three different marine reptiles (including a leatherback turtle, shown here) have provided researchers with essential clues to color of ancient reptiles. (Photo: Shutterstock)

The multi-million-year-old fossil remains of three different marine reptiles have provided researchers with essential clues to color of ancient reptiles. In a study published in journal Nature, researchers explained that the were able to isolate the fossilized skin pigments of a 196 to 190 million-year-old ichthyosaur, an 85 million-year-old mosasaur, and a 55 million-year-old leatherback turtle. Mosasaurs, giant marine lizards nearly 50 feet long, lived about 98 to 66 million years ago; the ichthyosaurus lived over 100 to 250 million years ago and was even larger in size. Both of these animals died out during the Cretaceous period; leatherback turtles have survived to this day.

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The researchers are pretty sure that they now know what colors these ancient marine reptiles were. According to Gareth Dyke, senior lecturer in vertebrate paleontology at the University of Southampton and a member of the research team, these pre-historic marine animals were "at least partially, dark-colored in life, something that probably contributed to more efficient thermoregulation, as well as providing means for camouflage and protection against harmful UV radiation."

Masses of micrometer-sized bodies of substances were found contained in their dark skin patches. Earlier, these microbodies were misinterpreted as fossilized remains of putrefying bacteria. When scientists studied the chemical content of the microbodies, they found that they were in fact the fossilized melanosomes, or cellular organelles that contain pigment. In other words, the microbodies were the remnants of the animals' own colors.  

Melanin is an incredibly stable pigment, according to Per Uvdal, one of the co-authors of the study. "Our discovery enables us to make a journey through time and to revisit these ancient reptiles using their own biomolecules," he said. The researchers are now planning to learn how these animals lived and looked like with the application of sophisticated molecular and imaging techniques.

Dermochelys is a living leatherback turtle with its back entirely black which is probably also the reason they have proliferated across the world as they can survive in the toughest climates. Their ability to survive in cold climates is attributed to their huge size. These animals bask at sea surface during the day, while black color over their back enables them to attain higher temperatures. 

The life style and color scheme of the fossil leather back matched the present day Dermochelys. "Similarly, mosasaurs and ichthyosaurs, which also had worldwide distributions, may have used their darkly colored skin to heat up quickly between dives," said Johan Lindgren of Lund University and the leader of the research team.

Some ichthyosaurs, unlike most living marine animals, were presumably uniformly dark-colored if the researchers' interpretations are correct. The similar color scheme is also seen in the modern deep-diving sperm whale designed by nature against UV protection when near the sea surface or as a camouflage in their deeper ocean environment. It is quite likely, therefore, that some ichthyosaurs were uniformly dark-colored as they were also deep divers like sperm whales and may have led a similar lifestyle.

Photo above courtesy of Shutterstock.

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