Dr Maria McNamara and Valentina Rossi, who led the study at UCC. Photo: Mike McSweeney/ Provision

'World-first' from UCC on fossils

UCC palaeontologists have discovered a new way to reconstruct what extinct animals looked like. 

The study, published last night in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, was led by UCC’s Valentina Rossi and her supervisor Dr Maria McNamara in collaboration with an international team of chemists from the US and Japan.

The university has described the discovery as a “world first”. The team used X-rays to peer inside the anatomy of fossils and uncover hidden features.

Until recently, most studies like this have focused on the skin and feathers, whereas here the pigment is linked to visible colour. 

Unexpectedly, the new study also showed that melanin is abundant in internal organs of modern amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals, and their fossil counterparts. Melanin is a broad term for a group of natural pigments found in most organisms.

Dr Maria McNamara said: “This discovery is remarkable in that it opens up a new avenue for reconstructing the anatomy of ancient animals. In some of our fossils we can identify skin, lungs, the liver, the gut, the heart, and even connective tissue. 

“What’s more, this suggests that melanin had very ancient functions in regulating metal chemistry in the body going back tens, if not hundreds, of millions of years.”