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X-ray Imaging Peers Back 150 Million Years

June 14, 2013
Written by: , Filed in: Diagnostic Imaging
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X-ray scanners can do amazing things these days—even look back 150 million years into the past.

Scientists have used the powerful X-ray beam from the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource in Menlo Park, California, to reconstruct the color patterns of archaeopteryx feathers—from 150 million-year-old fossils. “This is a big leap forward in our understanding of the evolution of plumage and also the preservation of feathers,” said Phillip Manning, PhD, a paleobiologist at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom.

Dr. Manning is lead author of a paper about the feather research, published online May 31 in Journal of Analytical Atomic Spectrometry. He was quoted in a university news release.

Archaeopteryx, of course, is the famous primitive bird that represents a toothed, long-tailed, feathered transition between dinosaurs and birds. It is known from only 11 fossils, one of which consists of a single feather. Earlier researchers used a scanning electron microscope to examine melanosomes—pigment-producing parts of a cell—still encased, after all these millennia, in their fossilized feather. Their studies, published last year in Nature Communications, led them to conclude that archaeopteryx had black feathers.

Well, yes and no, according to the new research. The electron microscope examined only small samples of the feather here and there. The synchrotron’s beam produced X-ray fluorescence from trace metals and organic sulfur compounds across the entire feather. Dr. Manning explained the results:

Together, these chemical traces show that the feather was light in color with areas of darker pigment along one edge and on the tip. Scans of a second fossilized archaeopteryx, known as the Berlin counterpart, also show that the trace-metal inventory supported the same plumage pigmentation pattern.

So, the feathers were indeed black along one edge and the tip, but lighter elsewhere. Another author of the paper, Roy Wogelius, PhD, a geochemical spectroscopy lecturer at the University of Manchester, added, “This work refines our understanding of pigment patterning in perhaps the most important known fossil. Our technique shows that complex patterns were present even at the very earliest steps in the evolution of birds.”

Even cooler than the findings themselves is the fact that so much information can be teased from 150 million-year-old chunks of rock. “It is remarkable,” Dr. Manning said, “that X-rays brighter than a million suns can shed new light on our understanding of the processes that have locked elements in place for such vast periods of time.”

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X-rays from the Stanford synchrotron also reveal another long-hidden secret: a deleted portion of a 200-year-old opera. For details, and a link to a performance of the newly revealed music, see our Facebook page.

Related CME seminar: National Diagnostic Imaging Symposium™

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