UCC scientists discover new way to reconstruct what extinct animals looked like

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UCC scientists discover new way to reconstruct what extinct animals looked like
UCC scientists discover new way to reconstruct what extinct animals looked like

UCC palaeontologists have discovered a new way to reconstruct the anatomy of ancient vertebrate animals bu analysing the chemistry of fossilized melanosomes from internal organs.

The study was published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America journal and 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 team used cutting-edge synchrotron techniques to analyse the chemistry of the fossil and modern melanosomes using X-rays which allowed them to peer inside the anatomy of fossils and uncover hidden features.

The new study also showed melanin is abundant in internal organs of modern amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals, and their fossil counterparts.

10 million-year-old fossil frog from Libros, Spain and X-ray map showing elevated levels of copper and zinc in the internal organs. Fossil photograph copyright the Natural History Museum, London. X-ray fluorescence map copyright Valentina Rossi.
10 million-year-old fossil frog from Libros, Spain and X-ray map showing elevated levels of copper and zinc in the internal organs. Fossil photograph copyright the Natural History Museum, London. X-ray fluorescence map copyright Valentina Rossi.

The team made the initial discovery of internal melanosomes last year on fossil frogs. The fossils are so well preserved, that even the melanin molecule can be detected.

Senior author of the study, 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.”

10 million-year-old fossil tadpole from Libros, Spain and X-ray map showing elevated levels of titanium in the skin, eye and especially the liver. X-ray fluorescence map copyright Valentina Rossi.
10 million-year-old fossil tadpole from Libros, Spain and X-ray map showing elevated levels of titanium in the skin, eye and especially the liver. X-ray fluorescence map copyright Valentina Rossi.

Rossi said: “After the pilot study, we had a hunch that these features would turn out to be more widespread across vertebrates. But we never guessed that the chemistry would be different in different organs,” Rossi said.

The advent of new synchrotron X-ray analysis techniques “allows us to harness the energy of really fast-moving electrons to detect minute quantities of different metals in the melanosomes.”

The study will be available here once published: www.pnas.org/content/early/2019/08/13/1820285116

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