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It is not everyday that you see a fossilized insect that still shows its bright colors. Typically, any fossilized animals, even those with hard shells, lose their color during the fossilization process. This is why all of the fossils that you have seen in your life all have that same dull grey color. One fossilized insect that is surprisingly colorful for being nearly fifty million years old is a fossil of an ancient beetle. For some reason this fossilized beetle appears significantly redder than it did while alive, but why?

Beetles are some of the most colorful creatures in nature. The colors of various beetles are also particularly intense, and this is due to the manner in which light hits the strange composition of the beetle’s exoskeleton. It would appear that some beetles are able to retain their colorful forms even millions of years after their deaths, and even after being fossilized. However, there has been much debate about whether or not the intense colors present on many fossilized beetle species are the beetle’s true colors. Perhaps the colors on fossilized beetles are just a byproduct of the fossilization process.

In order to find the beetles true colors and put this debate to bed, Yale University postdoctoral researcher Maria McNamara and her research team collected several fossils all aged between fifteen and fifty million years. McNamara analyzed each one of the fossils in the collection using a scanning electron microscope and a transmission electron microscope. The results showed that the structure of the fossilized beetle’s exoskeletons remained unchanged, but the way light passed through it did change. Apparently, the process of fossilization changes the beetle’s biochemistry. In this particular case the wavelengths from the light that is refracted off of the beetle’s armor have lengthened. Longer wavelengths appear redder, so naturally, the fossilized beetles are redder than they were when they were living.

Have you ever seen a fossil with some color to it? If you have, then which organism was fossilized?