Artist’s interpretation of Quetzalcoatlus wading in the water

How dinosaur fossil analysis could address modern day challenges

Image credit: James Kuether

A leading palaeontologist says that high-tech analysis of prehistoric fossils could help us deal with current global problems.

Last October, the UN released a promo video, during which an animated dinosaur walks into the UN General Assembly and warns actors posing as delegates that humans will go extinct if we don’t address the climate crisis.

Shock-tactic publicity stunt, it may have been, but according to palaeontologist Phil Manning from Manchester University, real dinosaurs, through the fossils they’ve left behind, actually have something to tell us about how to live more sustainably – if we ask the right questions.

“We know that studying the fossil record can help quantify how living things interact with their environment,” he says. “But what if we could reverse-engineer enough information from these fossils to help us devise more sustainable solutions for current problems?”
Manning is known for using high-tech approaches to fossil analysis. He was part of a group of experts who used synchrotron X-ray analysis to investigate pigmentation in prehistoric birds and CT-scan technology to study soft-tissue structure in a mummified hadrosaur – a duck-billed dinosaur.

“If you can optimise a system to manage a fossil, a large complex object with multiple densities and phases, then you can create technologies that can be used in industry to get really good data from sealed engineering units made of inhomogeneous material, with many phases of metal within that material,” Manning says. “You can create systems that enable people to get really good data first time. Complex samples push detection limits.”

Dinosaurs capture the imagination like little else, in part because we can never quite be sure what they looked like or how they behaved. Every year, millions are spent trying to find new insights into these fascinating creatures and their world.

In the last few months alone, scientists have discovered that dinosaurs moved around in herds much earlier than previously believed, found a distant plant-eating relative of T. rex that had no teeth, and announced the discovery of the longest-ever dinosaur, the 40m giant Supersaurus.

Back in November 2020, one of the world’s most famous dinosaur fossils was bought by the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences for $6m (£4.5m).

‘Duelling dinosaurs’, as the fossil has been known – ever since fossil hunter Clayton Phipps dug it out of the Montana soil in 2006 – appears to show an almost fully formed triceratops and a tyrannosaur locked in mortal combat. It’s the first fossil of its kind and ever since it was found, dino-nuts all over the world have been itching to find out whether the two animals died together in mortal combat, or whether they died elsewhere and subsequently washed up on the same river sandbar.

Analysis is ongoing, but Manning thinks there’s a lot more useful information locked away in dinosaur fossils. He believes that some of the most intelligent manufacturing materials in the future will be inspired by the past.

“Dinosaurs would have had to find ways of conserving energy otherwise they couldn’t have been so big,” he says, explaining that elastic structures become more important as animals get larger.

“We waste so much energy and yet some of the biggest animals that have ever lived managed to get around, across multiple terrains, with massive amounts of stress going through their bodies. Imagine an all-terrain vehicle that could do that today, or if there’s recoil energy to be recovered from vehicle tyres while driving.”

Dinosaurs weren’t the only prehistoric giants to leave potentially useful traces in the fossil record. In the seas, reptiles grew as large as submarines and by the end of the Cretaceous, when the dinosaurs died out, Spitfire-sized pterosaurs ruled the skies.

Manning believes that marine killers like Liopleurodon, a 7m-long pliosaur with a 2-3m jaw, could provide insights into how to better design crash-resistant vehicles. “Marine reptiles grew to the size of small submarines,” he says, “and from their body shape and hydrodynamics, look as if they were capable of incredible speeds.”

Imagine such a creature crashing into the side of a large prey animal, jaws crunching down on dense flesh and bone. Then imagine the forces involved and how strong the pliosaur’s jawbone, teeth and muscles must be, to remain unscathed.

From pterosaurs, Manning believes, much could be learned by studying the long fourth digit on their hands, the adaptation which enabled them to fly. Pterosaurs flew using a membrane that stretched from an extended fourth finger to their legs. They were much heavier than birds. The largest, Quetzalcoatlus, had an estimated weight of 200-250kg for a 10-11m wingspan. Very recent research out of University California-Berkley has described Quetzalcoatlus’ finger bone as like a huge ski pole extending from the base of its finger, angled 90 degrees out.

“The strength of that bone must have been phenomenal,” says Manning. “The loading on the low-aspect wing, the translation of the load through the bone. How did the bone do it? I don’t know, but we need to look at it, because those bones look like the bones of no animal alive on the planet today. We can learn from that – the mechanics of that bone, the structure of the materials that supported it and how it functioned in highly stressful loading environments.”

Fossil analysis might also help address other challenges, such as devising better models for safe underground storage of hazardous material, perhaps by combining synchrotron testing and elemental mapping of fossils with 3D data sets to retrieve 3D chemistry.

Manning also wonders whether we might one day enhance our immune responses to pathogens by studying prehistoric creatures with superior immune systems. For several years, he has been studying bone growth and chemistry in a 70-million-year-old Gorgosaurus. This huge carnivorous dinosaur had cancer in its shoulder and brain, most probably a bacterial infection in its mouth, and several broken bones, likely from regular falls. Yet it lived on for many years. Manning’s team used synchrotron analysis to map the chemical traces of enzymes that the Gorgosaur’s body would have sent to heal the fractures. This technology can help determine the atomic arrangement of biologically important elements, such as copper and sulphur.

“If we had an injury one-tenth as bad as this Gorgosaur, we’d die,” Manning says. “Get a scratch in a swamp and the bacterial infection will kill us. The Gorgosaurus’ immune system must’ve been immense for it to survive that long with all those injuries.”

He adds: “These are the sort of questions we need to be asking right now to unlock the real secrets of the past, secrets that could help protect our future.”

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