A new look at dinosaurs through hi-tech eyes

December 11, 2008 12:00:00 AM PST
The Archaeopteryx lithographica is the fossil linking dinosaurs with birds.

"It is an animal with a mixture of both reptilian characteristics, a long, bony tail, socketed teeth in its jaws, but it has bird-like characteristics as well, the most distinctive, of course, is feathers," University of Manchester paleontologist Phillip Manning said. "So it's like having a crocodile coming at you with feathers."

It was discovered in Bavarian limestone in 1860, the year after Charles Darwin's "The Origin of Species" was published. Today is sits in a Stanford University laboratory, being scanned by an X-ray machine unlike any other.

The X-rays from the Stanford machine can see elements like calcium and iron, present in the creature when it died.

"Something you can physically hold, touch and see, that's easy to understand; it's like picking up a pen, you know it's a pen," Manning said. "If it's just a shadow of a pen, you can't pick up shadows, (but) you can if the shadow is a chemical one, and you can read that shadow using the techniques here."

Manning is one of several team members working the first-of-its-kind experiment. The technique has been used before on other subjects, like art and books. Two years ago at Stanford, it revealed writings 2,300 years old.

But Stanford physicist Uwe Bergmann said the technology is still underused.

"I think there's still a small disconnect between the scientists who know those techniques very well and the large community of potential users," Bergmann said.

Their current experiment might tell scientists something about the Archaeopteryx's diet or environment, but the team does not want to speculate.

"Asking a scientists to second guess -- you can't do that," Manning said. "What we're hoping to do here is recover information that we can interpret and understand something new about the fossil."

The team will publish their results in a few months.


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