Dinosaurs are a hot topic again, thanks to Jurassic World. The spotlight’s been on cloning, but technology is providing many new insights in to the prehistoric era. These days, you’ll find palaeontology is less shovel and pick, more high-tech analysis.
“New technology makes it possible for palaeontologists to find out things about dinosaurs and the prehistoric past that we never knew before,” says Phillip Currie, who runs the University of Alberta’s undergraduate and postgraduate palaeontology courses. Palaeontology may have started out with amateur adventurers digging up bones by accident and arranging them in whatever shape they saw fit, but in recent years it has become increasingly technical.
“The latest technology makes our jobs easier. For instance, GPS technology helps us in the field. We can turn it into GIS information to locate remains more accurately.”
Digital visualisation technology
There’s a lot more. Digital visualisation technology helps scientists restore dinosaur skulls and 3D laser scans help experts understand how extinct animals moved. With finite element analysis, palaeontologists can work out how extinct animals lived and hunted. Apparently, sabre-tooth cats didn’t use their huge sabres to get a grip on their larger prey: the teeth were too fragile to support the cat’s weight. With CT scans, scientists can see through iron carbonite and the plaster casting to map fossils.
“You can put a dinosaur leg bone inside a hip socket and get some sort of an idea how the animal might have moved,” Currie says. “But dinosaur bones are big and heavy. Put cat scan data in to a computer and modelling software gives you an idea of how the animal moved, how fast, how its brain worked, where on the body the blood vessels and muscles grew.”
Phil Manning from the University of Manchester thinks that technology has turned palaeontologists from fossil hunters into forensic scientists.
“I call myself a geo-biologist, these days,” he says.
Synchrotron fossil analysis
Manning is part of a team that uses Stanford University’s synchrotron to analyse dinosaur fossils. Amongst other things, he’s discovered that dinosaur bones had remarkable healing properties. Also, that it’s possible to display pigment in archaeopteryx feathers and that there was a link between dinosaurs and early birds.
A synchrotron is a 3D X-ray imaging technique sometimes used in breast scans. Conventional X-ray imaging measures how much X-ray light gets through different parts of the tissue. With the synchrotron method, X-rays passing through an object are slightly distorted, or slowed down. Even tiny variations in the object's make-up will affect that distortion. Measuring this phase contrast can produce a very detailed, 3D picture of its internal structure.
“The synchrotron maps where the copper is and also the elements that surround it,” Manning says. He explains that if the copper is surrounded by sulphur, it’s likely to be inorganic, having leached in to the specimen from its environment. Surrounded by oxygen or nitrogen, it’s more likely to be organic from the original animal.
Manning’s team includes a geochemist, physicists, geologists and a computational zoologist.
“We have the potential to map organic molecules within a fossil and to understand the kinetics of what happens when something is preserved in the ground for 65 million years,” he says. “Compared to what we used to do, it’s like taking the Ancient Greek belief that there are only four elements and then showing someone a periodic table.”
The University of Alberta has a free online introductory course for budding palaeontologists. Lots of the university’s own students do the course in their gap year, but anyone in the world can sign up.
The course gives students a comprehensive overview of non-avian dinosaurs. It covers anatomy, eating, locomotion, growth, environmental and behavioural adaptations, as well as dinosaur origins and extinctions.
Even at this level, technology plays a part. Currie explains that students look at cat scans of dinosaur fossils, play interactive games and quizzes to help them learn about the prehistoric past. “The youngest person to pass the course was six years old,” he says. “The boy’s parents helped him with the technological jargon. He got 90 per cent.”
Will we uncover hybrids?
Will all this new technology ever uncover the fossil of a hybrid dinosaur, like the terrifying Indominus Rex in Jurassic World? Currie doubts it.
“Hybrids today have to be closely related species - say, a buffalo and a cow. You get something in between, but usually the hybrid can’t reproduce and the strain doesn’t live on.”
Currie believes that this is what probably happened with dinosaurs.
“We’ve uncovered some pretty weird animals over the years, but it’s hard to say whether any of them are hybrids. That’s because we have only discovered a tiny proportion of the animals that lived on Earth back then. We’ve found around 1,000 different species, which sounds a lot, but you have to remember that today alone there are 10,000 species of birds, 6,000 types of reptiles and 4,000 mammals. Dinosaurs lived for many millions of years,” he says. “There would have been many, many more species around than just 1,000.”
Manning believes that technology will be crucial to discovering more about those dinosaurs we do know about.
“There are thousands of specimens in museums all over [the world] waiting to show us their secrets,” he says.