Archaeopteryx: The Dinobird

X-Rays Reveal Chemical Link Between Birds and Dinosaurs. Researchers have found that a 150 million year old “dinobird” fossil, long thought to contain nothing but fossilized bone and rock, has been hiding remnants of the animal’s original chemistry. Using the bright X-ray beam of the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource, located at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, an international team of paleontologists, geochemists and physicists has revealed this transformative glimpse into one of the most important fossils ever discovered: the Archaeopteryx, a half-dinosaur/half-bird species.

“Archaeopteryx is to paleontology what Tutankhamen is to archaeology. It’s simply one of the icons of our field,” said University of Manchester paleontologist Phil Manning. “You would think after 150 years of study, we’d know everything we need to know about this animal. But guess what—we were wrong.”

When the first Archaeopteryx specimen was uncovered a century and a half ago, just a year after Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, the discovery provided the strongest evidence yet for the theory of evolution. In the intervening years, nine additional specimens have been found, including the Thermopolis specimen that the researchers studied at SSRL. Like the other Archaeopteryx specimens, this fossil has undergone extensive visual analyses and even CT scans in the past, none of which revealed that beneath the surface hid the dinobird’s chemical remains. But that was before researchers placed it under the X-ray beam at SSRL.

Using light source technology primarily utilized for advanced energy-related research in materials science, biology and other fields, the scientists traced SSRL’s hair-thin X-ray beam across the Thermopolis Archaeopteryx fossil. By recording how the X-rays interacted with the fossil, the researchers were able to identify very precisely the locations of chemical elements hidden within. From this, they created the first maps of the dinobird’s chemistry, revealing half a dozen chemical elements that were actually part of the living animal itself. In almost every element studied, the researchers found significantly different concentrations in the fossil than in the rock that surrounds it, confirming that the observed elements are indeed remnants of the dinobird and not merely chemicals that leached from the surrounding rock into the fossil.

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