DIS­COV­ERY – Dino drum­sticks dis­cov­ered

High-tech imag­ing is re­veal­ing a wealth of ex­tra in­for­ma­tion about the di­nosaur ori­gin of birds. JOHN PICKERELL re­ports.

Cosmos - - Digest -

The ma­jor­ity of di­nosaur fos­sils com­prise only pre­served bones, but in very rare cases sci­en­tists get a much more de­tailed glimpse at what these crea­tures might have looked like.

China’s Liaoning prov­ince is one place that reg­u­larly yields in­cred­i­ble fos­sils, with traces of feath­ers, in­ter­nal or­gans and even gut con­tents pre­served.

Re­cently re­searchers used a new method to re­veal de­tails of the body, skin, feath­ers and scales of a di­nosaur called

An­chior­nis. Known as laser-stim­u­lated flu­o­res­cence (LSF), the tech­nique uses a vi­o­let laser to make mol­e­cules in rem­nants of or­ganic tis­sues em­bed­ded in the rock glow in the dark.

“We were able to di­rectly ob­serve parts of the body out­line of a bird-like di­nosaur,” says Hong Kong Univer­sity palaeon­tol­o­gist Michael Pittman. “We also ob­served soft tis­sue de­tails of the wings and feet that are usu­ally ex­tremely dif­fi­cult to in­fer from study­ing fos­sil skele­tons.”

Crow-sized An­chior­nis is im­por­tant for un­der­stand­ing the ori­gin of birds and of flight, Pittman says, be­cause it is thought to be closely re­lated to the ances­tor of birds. The scans re­vealed foot­pads and scales very sim­i­lar to those seen on chick­ens, as well as small flaps of skin un­der the feath­ers on the lead­ing edge of the wings. These are known as “propata­gia”, and are im­por­tant for flight in birds. “Drum­stick-shaped legs” and a thin feath­ery tail were also ex­posed.

There are about 230 An­chior­nis spec­i­mens held in Chi­nese mu­seum col­lec­tions. This meant the sci­en­tists had many fos­sils from which to select the best soft-tis­sue preser­va­tion.

Mike Benton, a ver­te­brate palaeon­tol­o­gist at the Univer­sity of Bris­tol, said LSF was a use­ful tech­nique for dis­tin­guish­ing be­tween anatom­i­cal fea­tures and “arte­facts of preser­va­tion around the bones”, re­veal­ing pre­vi­ously in­vis­i­ble de­tails.

The An­chior­nis study was pub­lished in the jour­nal Na­ture Com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

CREDIT: WANG XL, PITTMAN M ET AL. 2017.

An­chior­nis un­der laser-stim­u­lated flu­o­res­cence, show­ing feath­ers like those of mod­ern birds.

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