Johan Lindgren – together with colleagues abroad as well as at his own department and at the infrared microspectroscopy beamline D7 at the old MAX IV Laboratory in Lund – studied the biomolecular inventory of the fossil turtle. The researchers identified residues of several different molecules, including beta-keratin, eumelanin, haemoglobin, and tropomyosin. Eumelanin is a pigment that provides dark skin colour also in humans. Researchers at Lund University in Sweden have discovered well-preserved pigments and other biomolecules in a 54 million-year-old baby sea turtle. The molecular analyses show that the turtle’s shell contained pigments to protect it from harmful UV rays of the sun.
Scientific Reports 7, Article number: 13324 (2017)
The holotype (MHM-K2) of the Eocene cheloniine Tasbacka danica is arguably one of the best preserved juvenile fossil sea turtles on record. Notwithstanding compactional flattening, the specimen is virtually intact, comprising a fully articulated skeleton exposed in dorsal view. MHM-K2 also preserves, with great fidelity, soft tissue traces visible as a sharply delineated carbon film around the bones and marginal scutes along the edge of the carapace. Here we show that the extraordinary preservation of the type of T. danica goes beyond gross morphology to include ultrastructural details and labile molecular components of the once-living animal. Haemoglobin-derived compounds, eumelanic pigments and proteinaceous materials retaining the immunological characteristics of sauropsid-specific β-keratin and tropomyosin were detected in tissues containing remnant melanosomes and decayed keratin plates. The preserved organics represent condensed remains of the cornified epidermis and, likely also, deeper anatomical features, and provide direct chemical evidence that adaptive melanism – a biological means used by extant sea turtle hatchlings to elevate metabolic and growth rates – had evolved 54 million years ago.