Organic preservation of fossil musculature with ultracellular detail

Maria McNamara, Patrick J. Orr, Stuart L. Kearns, Luis Alcalá, Pere Anadón, Enrique Peñalver-Mollá


The very labile (decay-prone), non-biomineralized, tissues of organisms are rarely fossilized. Occurrences thereof are invaluable supplements to a body fossil record dominated by biomineralized tissues, which alone are extremely unrepresentative of diversity in modern and ancient ecosystems. Fossil examples of extremely labile tissues (e.g. muscle) that exhibit a high degree of morphological fidelity are almost invariably replicated by inorganic compounds such as calcium phosphate. There is no consensus as to whether such tissues can be preserved with similar morphological fidelity as organic remains, except when enclosed inside amber. Here, we report fossilized musculature from an approximately 18 Myr old salamander from lacustrine sediments of Ribesalbes, Spain. The muscle is preserved organically, in three dimensions, and with the highest fidelity of morphological preservation yet documented from the fossil record. Preserved ultrastructural details include myofilaments, endomysium, layering within the sarcolemma, and endomysial circulatory vessels infilled with blood. Slight differences between the fossil tissues and their counterparts in extant amphibians reflect limited degradation during fossilization. Our results provide unequivocal evidence that high-fidelity organic preservation of extremely labile tissues is not only feasible, but likely to be common. This is supported by the discovery of similarly preserved tissues in the Eocene Grube Messel biota.


    • Received July 31, 2009.
    • Accepted September 22, 2009.
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