The taphonomy of colour in fossil insects and feathers


  • Maria E. McNamara

    1. Department of Geology & Geophysics, Yale University, New Haven, CT, USA
    2. UCD School of Geological Sciences, University College Dublin, Belfield, Dublin 4, Ireland
    Current affiliation:
    1. School of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol, Bristol, UK
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Colouration is an important multifunctional attribute of modern animals, but its evolutionary history is poorly resolved, in part because of our limited ability to recognize and interpret fossil evidence of colour. Recent studies on structural and pigmentary colours in fossil insects and feathers have illuminated important aspects of the anatomy, taphonomy, evolution and function of colour in these fossils. An understanding of the taphonomic factors that control the preservation of colour is key to assessing the fidelity with which original colours are preserved and can constrain interpretations of the visual appearance of fossil insects and theropods. Various analytical approaches can identify anatomical and chemical evidence of colour in fossils; experimental taphonomic studies inform on how colour alters during diagenesis. Preservation of colour is controlled by a suite of factors, the most important of which relate to the diagenetic history of the host sediment, that is, maximum burial temperatures and fluid flow, and subsurface weathering. Future studies focussing on key morphological and chemical aspects of colour preservation relating to cuticular pigments in insects and keratinous structures and nonmelanin pigments in feathers, for example, will resolve outstanding questions regarding the taphonomy of colour and will enhance our ability to infer original colouration and its functions in fossil insects and theropods.