DISCOVERY – Dino drumsticks discovered
High-tech imaging is revealing a wealth of extra information about the dinosaur origin of birds. JOHN PICKERELL reports.
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.
Anchiornis under laser-stimulated fluorescence, showing feathers like those of modern birds.