Beetle Find Is One of the Oldest Colored Fossils

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This is the first time that a multi-layer reflector has been found in a fossil, and the find may have wider implications, said Parker. It could pave the way for predicting the color of other well-preserved fossils that no longer retain original hues, but still carry the fine shape of once-translucent, color-producing structures. Computer models could then be used to predict the wavelength of light, or color, that would have been reflected back from these structures in life.

To prove that point, Parker and McKenzie prepared a slice of the fossil and examined it under a powerful electron microscope. They measured the dimensions of the multi-layer reflector and fed those details into a computer program. The results were encouraging. Using those measurements alone, the computer program predicted that a bright blue hue would be produced.

Painting the Past

That result proves that the method could be accurately used to measure other exceptionally well-preserved fossils containing similar color-producing structures. These would most likely be other types of invertebrate shell, but could include anything from iridescent reptile skin to iridescent bird feathers—and even feathers of dinosaur relatives, said Parker. Extinct and numerous trilobites—flattened oval-shaped, lobster-like animals—might be one obvious contender, he added.

Data on ancient color could tell us about the environment and behavior of animals. Coloration is important for mating, camouflage, and intimidation, said Parker.

Predicting the color of other fossils is quite plausible, agreed Lawrence, but will depend on the type of substrate. Fine clays and amber would be ideal, but the grains of sandstone, for example, would be so large as to obscure the structure, he said. Learning about the evolution of structural color could provide us with insight for commercial applications, he added.

Parker has already used the computer methods to predict the color of some very ancient 515-million-year-old fossils, but until now he had no idea whether the method was accurate or not. These weird-looking animals, unlike anything known today, may have sported a hologram type sheen, which changed color depending on the angle of view, said Parker.

For further information, read: In The Blink of An Eye (2003) by Andrew Parker, published by Perseus Books.

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