Presented by University of Bristol, University College Dublin and Yale University

Chris Rogers
University of Bristol, School of Earth Sciences

Dr Maria McNamara
University of Bristol, School of Earth Sciences

Prof. Mike Benton
University of Bristol, School of Earth Sciences

Dr Stuart Kearns
University of Bristol, School of Earth Sciences

Exhibit blog

Our colourful work

prehistoric-colours-blog: We’re a team of Palaeontologists working on the colours of fossil animals and we’ll be showcasing our research to the public at this year’s Royal Society Summer Science Fest....

Further reading

How prehistoric animals looked and moved can be recreated by constructing skeletons and using computer imaging models. One of the great mysteries of palaeontology is what colours the animals actually displayed. Colours are rarely preserved in fossils, so in the past scientists have had to guess what animals may have looked like. Recent discoveries of colour-producing structures in fossil insects and feathers are helping scientists solve this mystery and learn about the evolution of colour and its role in communication in animals.

See the scientists explain the science behind their exhibit in the video above, produced by students from Imperial College: Tim Cockerill, Sander Loite

How it works

This exhibit will demonstrate how scientists are recreating the fossilisation process to determine how it effects the preservation of animals, and the key technique that they are using to identify evidence of colour in fossils.  

Using modern insects and feathers, scientists are conducting experiments to measure the effects of pressure, temperature and chemicals on colours to see if and how they change over time. Scientists can then examine fossils using powerful electron microscopes such as the working example in our exhibit, and identify which fossils have accurately preserved their colours. By understanding how colours degrade over time, scientists can infer the colouration of prehistoric animals.

This will help scientists identify important changes in the evolution of colour and how it was used by animals in the past. As a result, we will have a better understanding of how the communication strategies and behaviour of modern animals have evolved over time.

Zombeetle and the Fossil Colour Quest Game

Hand -beetle 150

Play Zombeetle and the Fossil Colour Quest, a game exploring how a zombeetle becomes a fossil.

Follow the instructions to install Unity web player (Windows or Mac OS X)  if needed. You can play in full-screen mode by right-clicking in the game.

Lead Image: Structurally coloured fossil beetle