Ancient snake wore green

illustration of ancient snake

Researchers suspect that a roughly 10-million-year-old snake once had a pattern of bright green and black pigments on its back, with yellow and pale brown coloration on its sides, fading into a creamy underbelly.  

Jim Robbins

An ancient snakeskin preserves signs of the bright green coloration of its wearer, researchers report online March 31 in Current Biology.

The fossilized skin of an 11.2-million- to 8.7-million-year-old snake from Spain contains remnants of pigment cells. By comparing the cells’ shapes and architectures with those of modern snakes, the researchers identified cellular structures linked to green, yellow, brown, black and creamy hues.

Previous reconstructions of ancient colors have been limited to the reds, browns and blacks of melanin pigment, but this is an unusual case. Calcium phosphate in the rock allowed for exceptional preservation of the snake’s skin layers, opening the door to reconstructing green and yellow colors in the fossil record.

fossilized snake
Calcium phosphate preserved soft skin tissue in this fossilized snake. While previous color reconstruction research has focused on the reds and browns of melanin pigment cells, phosphorus may preserve additional types of pigment cell that degrade in other fossilization processes, researchers think. McNamara et al./Current Biology 2016

Helen Thompson is the multimedia editor. She has undergraduate degrees in biology and English from Trinity University and a master’s degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins University.

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