Powerful x-rays may reveal secrets of ‘dinobird’ fossil

February 23rd, 2009 - 1:33 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, Feb 23 (IANS) About 150 million years ago, an evolutionarily hybrid creature, a dinosaur metamorphosing into a bird, died in what is now Germany, and become fossilised in limestone.
About 150 years ago, the fossil of this “dinobird” was discovered and celebrated as proof of Charles Darwin’s new theory of evolution.

Now fast forward to a few weeks ago: The famous fossil, the Thermopolis specimen of Archaeopteryx lithographica, made its way by truck from the Wyoming Dinosaur Centre to the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL) in California, where it was meticulously scanned by one of the world’s most powerful x-ray machines, a building-sized device created for physics research.

By looking for traces of specific elements left in the slab of limestone as the bird decomposed, the researchers hope to uncover heretofore-unseen details of the soft tissue that once surrounded the well-preserved bones.

The x-rays, generated by SSRL’s high-speed electrons as they race around a 260-foot-diameter ring, cause the elements to glow, revealing the ghost of soft tissue or feathers.

“If you want to find a single fossil which is a missing link in the evolution of dinosaurs into birds, this is it,” said University of Manchester palaeontologist Phil Manning, a member of the research team. “It’s a bird with sharp teeth, claws and a long bony tail. If you were to freeze-frame evolution, you would end up with Archaeopteryx.”

“What you normally can’t see are the chemical elements from the original organism that might still be present in the fossil,” said SSRL scientist Uwe Bergmann. “Using x-ray fluorescence imaging, we can bring these elements to light, getting a better look at the fossil and learning more about the original animal.”

“These x-rays work a thousand time better than what you could do with a commercial x-ray machine. Only a synchrotron can do this,” Bergmann said. SSRL is part of SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, which is operated by Stanford University for the Department of Energy, said a Stanford release.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Posted in Sci-Tech |