Ancient sea monsters were large and black

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

sea monsters
Wow, that looks like a dolphin and whale up at the top, huh?

Today, the ocean is filled with tons of colorful animals ranging from emerald green sea turtles to bright blue dolphins… but this wasn’t always the case. According to researchers from the University of Sweden, ancient sea animals were about as black as the deepest, coldest parts of the sea.

How do they know this? Well, the researchers examined ancient fossils with pieces of skin particles from three different creatures: a 55-million-year-old leatherback turtle, an 86-million-year-old mosasaur, and a 190-million-year-old ichthyosaur. The small samples collected from the bones had traces of melanosomes – tiny packets of pigments that give skin, feathers, and hair their color.

According to the researchers, the melanosomes collected from the fossils contained dark melanin – the light-absorbing pigment which gives humans and animals color.

This suggests that the animals had black skin, feathers, or hair. The sleek, dark appearance wasn’t just to be fashionable though – it served a greater purpose. For one, it might have protected them from getting a really nasty sunburn from the sunlight. If you’ve ever seen or experienced a bad sunburn yourself, I’m sure you can imagine how useful this would have been. Second, the dark color could have helped them trap heat from the Sun to stay warm. Finally, the non-flashy colors might have allowed the animals to sneak up on unsuspecting prey.

“Our results really are amazing,” said Per Uvdal, one of the co-authors of the study. “The pigment melanin is almost unbelievably stable. Our discovery enables us to make a journey through time and to revisit these ancient reptiles using their own biomolecules. Now, we can finally use sophisticated molecular and imaging techniques to learn what these animals looked like and how they lived.”

Featured image courtesy of Stefan Sølberg via LiveScience. Image of animal diagram courtesy of Johan Lindgren.