Dinobird Chemistry Revealed

Sunday, June 26, 2011

"Dinobird," a 150-million-year-old fossil for an animal that looked half dinosaur and half bird, has just yielded some important chemical clues, according to a study published today in the journal Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences.

Extremely strong x-ray beams and other high tech equipment reveal that dinobird—Archaeopteryx—had dinosaur-like teeth but also features common to birds, such as feathers. What's more, the fossil retains the chemical components of those feathers, suggesting that fossilized feather material exists with the remains.

The discovery could revolutionize the field of paleontology, according to the research team led by scientists at The University of Manchester and the U.S. Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. They've created maps showing the chemical elements that were part of the living animal itself.

(False color Synchrotron Rapid Scanning X-ray Fluorescence detail map of Archaeopteryx. Color code is: Calcium-red, Zn-green, Mn-blue. Image created by W.I. Sellers from data collected at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource.)

The feathers contain phosphorous and sulfur, elements that compose modern bird feathers. Trace amounts of copper and zinc were also found in the dinobird's bones. Like birds today, Archaeopteryx may have required those elements to stay healthy.
University of Manchester palaeontologist Phil Manning said, "Archaeopteryx is to paleontology what Tutankhamen is to archaeology. It's simply one of the icons of our field. You would think after 150 years of study, we'd know everything we need to know about this animal. But guess what—we were wrong."

(Another look at Archaeopteryx. This time, the Solnhofen Specimen, by some considered as belonging to the genus Wellnhoferia; Credit: H. Raab)

Lead author geochemist Roy Wogelius from The University of Manchester added, "We talk about the physical link between birds and dinosaurs, and now we have found a chemical link between them. In the fields of paleontology and geology, people have studied bones for decades. But this whole idea of the preservation of trace metals and the chemical remains of soft tissue is quite exciting."
The researchers found significantly different concentrations of elements in the fossil than in the surrounding rock, confirming they are remnants of the dinobird and not leached from the surrounding rock into the fossil.

SLAC physicist Uwe Bergmann, who led the X-ray scanning experiment, said, "People have never used a technique this sensitive on Archaeopteryx before. Because the SSRL beam is so bright, we were able to see the teeniest chemical traces that nobody thought were there."

CMW Institute researcher Bob Morton said, “The discovery that certain fossils retain the detailed chemistry of the original organisms offers scientists a new avenue for learning about long-extinct creatures."

Manning concluded, “I wouldn't be surprised if future excavations look more like CSI investigations where people look for clues at a scene of a crime. There's info that's still there that can't be seen with the naked eye. We can only see these valuable pieces of data using the x-ray vision that the synchrotron provides.”

For more information related to dinosaurs, visit rareresource.com.


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