Unearthing dinosaurs in the digital age
Technological advances have opened new frontiers for fossil analysts, and could help resurrect creatures frozen in Siberian ice
The lore of fossil hunting that fills your five-year-old with wide-eyed wonder is nothing but romantic nostalgia. The age-old notion of dusty, well-built men and women in wide safari hats wielding tiny brushes and painstakingly removing years of sediment to reveal a bounty of bones of ancient creatures has, well, gone the way of the dinosaurs.
The practice made famous in the opening minutes of the 1993 film classic Jurassic Park, which has been used since the "bone war" days of the 1800s, has received an upgrade.
Now, thanks to a new bounty of technological marvels, we are far better equipped to investigate the extinct creatures that have captured our imaginations for centuries, essentially breathing them into figurative life.
These days, instead of fine-bristle brushes, you will find X-ray tomography, virtual reconstruction and dissection, and 3D printing in a palaeontologist’s tool kit. In fact, a large chunk of research and experimentation happens long before the bones are brought anywhere near the surface.
Fossils often have parts missing due to degradation, decay or distortion in the process of the bones becoming one with the earth. Now scientists are able to fill the gaps with virtual bones from data collected on other specimens. They can then print or digitally model the specimens, allowing immediate hands-on manipulation and play that can even be shared.
It comes in at a fraction of the time and price it takes to unearth the actual specimens, and no important biological information is lost in the process.
The old days of frantic "dig up and go" actually caused a huge amount of data to be lost, often leading to misidentification and even loss of bones.
Now researchers can leave the bones where they are but use biomechanical analysis — just like bridge-building engineers do — to ascertain how the dino walked or moved and the various ways it couldn’t, due to anatomical limitations. The soft tissues can then be more accurately theorised and virtually attached to discernible points on the bones.
But it is the ability of scientists to investigate the dinosaurs on a microscopic level that is the most interesting development. Not only can they analyse fossilised bones and their immediate environments, but they can look inside the bodies of the animals.
The Smithsonian magazine reports that a team in Germany using this technology discovered a bird that used to pollinate plants. They were able to see and distinguish multiple species of pollen grains inside the stomach of the 47-million-year-old fossil.
Microscopic investigation led to a paper in December 2018 analysing two almost complete remains of strange bird-like creatures called pterosaurs. Led by palaeontologist Zixiao Yang of Nanjing University in China, the study claims that the short-tailed, pigeon-sized dino may have been covered in four different types of fur-like feathers called pycnofibres.
All manner of techniques with very long names — from laser-stimulated fluorescence imaging to Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy — were used to deduce on a molecular level that these pycnofibres may have performed all sorts of functions like thermal insulation and reduction of drag in flight. Furthermore, the authors say, the feathers of this dino-pigeon appear to branch away from the body in a way "remarkably similar" to bird feathers, and resemble our more modern feathered friends on "chemical and cellular levels".
But as delightful as it is to know a bit more about a fluffy, feathered, flying dino-pigeon-lizard-rat, what does this really mean on the greater (lizard) scale of things?
The paper claims that the research on these smart fuzzy feathers indicates that the long-held belief that feathers evolved in dinosaurs could be wrong, and that feathers may have originated in the primordial archosaur, a common ancestor of both dinosaurs and modern birds. This basically means that the typical dinosaurs of our imagination could very well have been covered in quills, rather than scales. This molecular discovery could show that Alan Grant in Jurassic Park was right about dinosaurs being even more like birds than we thought.
But as with many scientific theories about the long-distant past, the paper sparked all sorts of heated debate. Scientific American found scientists from Belgium, the UK and US who are wary of its claims. David Unwin at the University of Leicester calls the Nanjing scientists’ interpretation of the evidence "problematic, to say the least".
Wouldn’t it be great if we had a real-life version of the beast to analyse, in the vein of the 1993 movie classic?
Well, the prospect of being reintroduced to animals from 40,000 years ago is almost within our grasp. In September 2018, Russian scientists unveiled plans to create a $5.8m "world-class palaeo-genetic scientific centre" in Siberia. Here they plan to bio-engineer and clone woolly mammoths, woolly rhinoceroses, cave lions and breeds of extinct horses.
In partnership with South Korea’s Sooam Biotech Research Foundation, scientists will try to use DNA from preserved parts and specimens found in the permafrost to create living, breathing creatures.
They, like Richard Attenborough’s Jurassic Park character, will also use the DNA of the animals’ closest living relatives to fill in the gaps.
We might be able to say "Welcome to Pleistocene Park" sooner than we think.