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Leave Those Fossils Dirty

May 20, 2010
Written by: , Filed in: Musculoskeletal Radiology
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Wow; now this is a retrospective study: a new X-ray imaging technique has revealed chemical traces of feathers and bones in an Archaeopteryx fossil that’s 150 million years old. Researchers even think they may soon be able to figure out the colors of such ancient creatures’ feathers.

That is, if museums haven’t already cleaned away the evidence.

Archaeopteryx is the oldest and most primitive bird so far discovered. Fossils show clear impressions of feathers but also such dinosaur-like characteristics as teeth. Only 10 specimens have ever been found.

Researchers took one of those fossils to the Stanford Linear Accelerator in California and imaged it by means of synchroton rapid scanning X-ray fluorescence. Similar but older techniques that use low-intensity X-rays require 24 hours to image a square centimeter. The new process, using high-intensity X-rays from a synchrotron, takes 30 seconds to do the same thing.

Under that radiation bombardment, trace elements fluoresced. It turned out that the fossil retained bits of the actual bird—phosphorus and sulfur from the feathers and zinc and copper from the bones.

“People have been looking at these a long time and thought that they were just impressions,” one of the researchers, Roy A. Wogelius, PhD, told ScienceNews magazine. “But there’s actually remains of soft tissue there.” Dr. Wogelius, a geochemist at the University of Manchester in England, and his colleagues have had their study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Phosphorus is abundant in modern bird feathers. The chemical composition of the bones also seems to have been similar to that of today’s birds.

“To me that’s quite exciting,” Dr. Wogelius told BBC News. “It establishes a nutrient link between Archaeopteryx and modern birds. If you have a pet bird such as a budgie or a parakeet, the key nutrients to get right for your pet’s health are copper and zinc.”

The new X-ray technique may have applications in biomolecule extraction, fraud detection, and the study of ancient documents, the researchers said.

Meanwhile, they hope to examine more fossils—the messier, the better. Dr. Wogelius pleaded with museum curators to minimize cleaning of their display pieces. “The preparation and curation of (fossils) needs to take account of the fact that there may be very, very small quantities of chemical remains, which curators can tend to remove,” he said.

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