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Scientists find color of prehistoric bats by analyzing their fossils

Scientists determine the color of ancient bats based on the shape of the melanin preserved in their fossils. If these bats had their own coloring book, you'd only get to use one or two crayons.

In making movies about dinosaurs, some filmmakers take creative license to heighten the scare factor, designing creatures of different sizes and colors than those that actually roamed the Earth.

The good news is that if a big-time Hollywood director ever makes a movie about a reanimated swarm of mutant prehistoric bats, scientists from the University of Bristol, University of Texas-Austin and Virginia Polytechnic Institute can tell them what color their CGI team should make them.

The scientists were able to determine that two species of bat that lived at least 33.9 million years ago had a reddish-brown color before becoming a well-preserved fossil. They explain their method in a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal on Monday.

Scientists were able to determine the color of this prehistoric bat by analyzing fossilized remnants of its melanin. Jakob Vinther/University of Bristol

The pigment melanin that gives animals their skin, hair and eye color helped the researchers determine the bats' color. Until now, scientists weren't sure if certain microscopic structures preserved in fossils were melanosomes (the melanin-containing part of a cell) or just bacteria.

The scientists put that debate to rest by re-creating the hot, highly pressurized conditions that formed with the fossils using an autoclave. Then they found the melanosomes in the fossil using a focused ion beam to examine the molecular makeup of the fossil's surface.

Melanin comes in two colors, and the melanosome that carries the pigment comes in two shapes: round and reddish-brown or tube-shaped and black. The melanin observed in the bat fossils was round, meaning the mammals had a reddish-brown hue.

"This means that the correlation of melanin color to shape is an ancient invention, which we can use to easily determine color from fossils by simply looking at the melanosome shape," University of Bristol lecturer and study co-author Jakob Vinther said in a statement.

Vinther's method has been used in the past to determine the color of other extinct species. In 2010, a team of scientists from Yale University, where Vinther was a graduate student at the time, reconstructed the gray and black and white striped pattern of a feathered dinosaur from the Jurassic Period called Anchiornis huxleyi by analyzing the melanosomes present in the fossil.

So that settles it. If the next "Jurassic World" has any bats and they aren't reddish-brown, we all need to start some kind of letter writing campaign or an online petition.