Friday 21st September at 5pm!

Come visit UCC’s School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences for an amazing interactive event that will let you get up close and personal with everything from creepy crawlies to sharks to gems and feathered dinosaurs! Touch and feel rare and valuable specimens from our collections, including hedgehogs, shark jaws, lava and fossils.

Take a closer look in our Micro Lab, where you can use microscopes, magnifying glasses and zoomboxes to investigate everything from tiny creatures living in the River Lee, to grains of sand, to plant cells. Find out what it’s like to be a scientist in our Meet the Scientist room. Don’t forget to visit the albatross photo booth, test water samples, watch plants drink and take part in a fossil dig!

New paper in Nature Communications on fossil colour

(image: black aggregates of melanosomes in a histological section of extant frog liver)

UCC palaeontologists make new discovery forcing rethink on colours of fossil birds, reptiles and dinosaurs

A UCC-led discovery of new sources of the pigment melanin will force scientists to rethink how they reconstruct the colour of fossil birds, reptiles and dinosaurs.

Many recent studies of fossil colour have assumed fossilized granules of melanin – melanosomes – come from the skin. But new evidence shows that other tissues – such as the liver, lungs, and spleen – can also contain melanosomes, suggesting that fossil melanosomes may not provide information on fossil colour.

The study, published today in the journal Nature Communications, is led by UCC’s Dr Maria McNamara in collaboration with her PhD student Valentina Rossi, Dr Patrick Orr from UCD, and an international team of palaeontologists from the UK and Japan.

‘It’s absolutely critical that we understand the origins of melanosomes in fossils if we want to produce accurate reconstructions of the colours of ancient animals,’ said Dr McNamara.

The team studied internal tissues in modern frogs with powerful microscopes and chemical techniques to show that internal melanosomes are highly abundant.

“This means that these internal melanosomes could make up the majority of the melanosomes preserved in some fossils,” said collaborator Prof. Mike Benton at the University of Bristol.

The team also used decay experiments and analysed fossils to show that the internal melanosomes can leak into other body parts during the fossilization process, “like snowflakes inside a snow globe”, said Dr Orr.

There is a way, however, to tell the difference between melanosomes from internal organs and the skin. “The size and shape of skin melanosomes is usually distinct from those in internal organs’, said Dr McNamara. ‘This will allow us to produce more accurate reconstructions of the original colours of ancient vertebrates.”

The paper is published today in Nature Communications:

See below for some news items on the study:

NEW! 4-year fully funded PhD position available

The impact of organic matter on heavy metal bioavailability in urban soils: experimental and field-based approaches

Heavy metal (HM) contamination in urban soils is a major global geohazard, but data on this issue in Ireland is lacking, particularly the extent to which the amount and type of soil organic matter affects the bioavailability and chemical state of HM. The proposed research will resolve these issues using a powerful dual approach combining the first systematic survey of urban soils in southern Ireland, focussing on soils in recreational areas, and innovative laboratory experiments exploring the impact of different sources of organic matter on heavy metal solubility, oxidation state and local chemical environment. The study will provide baseline data on the extent and toxicity of HM contamination in Irish urban recreational soils, guiding planning and bioremediation, and will serve as a platform for developing research capacity on the fate of HM in the geosphere. Diverse dissemination activities will ensure visibility of the research amongst academics, policymakers and the public.

The project is funded under the iCRAG – GSI Environmental Geosciences PhD Programme and is supported by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) and the GSI.

Projects are fully funded for four years with a stipend of €18,500 per annum plus fees for EU applicants.


Key dates

Project start date: 3rd September 2018

Application deadline: 1 pm Friday 22 June 2018

How to apply

Applications must be submitted via the online application portal before the application deadline. If you have any queries about the application process, please email:

More information


New paper in Nature Communications on fossil dandruff

UCC palaeontologists Maria McNamara and her postdoc Chris Rogers have discovered 125-million-year old dandruff preserved amongst the plumage of feathered dinosaurs and early birds.

Just like human dandruff, the fossil dandruff is made of tough cells called corneocytes, which in life are dry and full of the protein keratin.

The study, published today in the journal Nature Communications, is led by Maria and features other researchers from UCC (Dr Andre Toulouse and Ms Tara Foley from the UCC Dept. of Anatomy and Neuroscience), Dr Patrick Orr from UCD and researchers from the UK and China.

The team studied the fossil cells, and dandruff from modern birds, with powerful electron microscopes.  ‘The fossil cells are preserved with incredible detail – right down to the level of nanoscale keratin fibrils’ said Dr McNamara. ‘What’s remarkable is that the fossil dandruff is almost identical to that in modern birds – even the spiral twisting of individual fibres is still visible.’

Modern birds have very fatty corneocytes with loosely packed keratin, which allows them to cool down quickly when they are flying for long periods. The corneocytes in the fossil dinosaurs and birds, however, were packed with keratin, suggesting that the fossils didn’t get as warm as modern birds, presumably because they couldn’t fly at all or for as long periods.

The paper can be accessed here!


See below for several news articles related to the findings:

Maria’s research was also mentioned on a recent episode of “Have I Got A Bit More News For You”!

New paper in Science Advances

Fossil study sheds light on ancient butterfly wing colours!

New research by scientists at UCC has revealed the wing colours of some of the oldest ancestors of modern butterflies and moths.

The 180 million-year-old fossils, preserved in rocks and amber, would have had bronze to golden colours produced by microscopic ridges and grooves on the surface of their wing scales. These fossils extend the evidence for light-scattering structures in insects by more than 130 million years.

UCC palaeobiologists Drs Maria McNamara and Luke McDonald reconstructed the colours using powerful electron microscopes and optical modelling. Similar ridges and grooves are still seen in modern primitive moths.

Dr McDonald said, “Insects have evolved an amazing diversity range of photonic nanostructures that can produce iridescence, metallic colours, and other eye‑catching effects that play a vital role in visual signalling.”

Dr McNamara said “Remarkably, these fossils are among the oldest known representatives of butterflies and moths. We didn’t expect to find wing scales preserved, let alone microscopic structures that produce colour. This tells us that colour was an important driving force in shaping the evolution of wings even in the earliest ancestors of butterflies and moths”.

The results of the study (“Fossil scales illuminate the early evolution of lepidopterans and structural colors”) are published in the journal Science Advances, and are available here!

See below for several news articles related to the findings:

The Independent lepidopteran wing colour news article

Daily Mirror lepidopteran wing colour news article

Yorkshire Post lepidopteran wing colour news article

Press Association lepidopteran wing colour news article

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