Synchrotron Helps Identify Unprecedented Anatomy Preserved in Fossils
Scientists from the University of Manchester have used synchrotron-based imaging techniques to identify never-before-seen anatomy preserved in the fossils.
Their work on 50-million-year-old lizard skin identified the presence of teeth (invisible to visible light), demonstrating for the first time that this fossil animal was more than just a skin slough. This was only possible by using some of the brightest light in the universe, X-rays generated by a synchrotron.
Dr. Phil Manning, Dr. Nick Edwards, Dr. Roy Wogelius and their colleagues in the Paleontology Research Group used synchrotron rapid-screening X-ray fluorescence at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Light Source in California to map the chemical composition of a rare fossil lizard skin. This advanced technology uses powerful X-rays that allowed the team to map the presence of phosphorus in the teeth of this ancient reptile.
The relative position of phosphorus in the skin fossil helped scientists identify the type of lizard. They believe that the more elongated snout in conjunction with the general shape of the jaw strongly resembles a shinisaurid lizard (Bahndwivici ammoskius). The presence of phosphorus also demonstrates for the first time that fossil skin is more than just a molt, as no lizard can lose its teeth along with its skin!
Speaking of the images, Dr Manning said: “The discovery of the presence of teeth changes almost everything we thought we knew about this fossil. We can identify the type of lizard for the first time, based on the geometry of the teeth. Our findings also raise fascinating questions about what happened to the animal after it died. What erased his bones but preserved the skin and the ghost of his teeth?
The results of the analysis of the fossil using the synchrotron were published in the journal Applied Physics A. This adds to the growing weight of evidence that powerful synchrotrons offer advanced analysis of fossils.
Dr Manning also said: ‘The technique allows us to disentangle chemical information from fossils, information that you simply cannot see with the naked eye. Such chemical maps can help us see the “ghosts” of the original biological structures that only remain in very dilute concentrations in the fossil.
Dr Nick Edwards, lead author of the paper, said: ‘This technology is changing the way we think about taphonomy (the study of decaying organisms and how they are fossilized). We can now begin to search for animal tracks completely invisible in visible light by analyzing the luminous chemical signature that appears under the powerful gaze of the synchrotron. This “x-ray vision” will allow paleontologists to add important information to the biology, anatomy and preservation of ancient life. »
The team worked with a leading geochemist, Dr. Roy Wogelius (also lead author), who was instrumental in developing the techniques deployed by the Paleontology Research Group. Dr Wogelius said: “These techniques are beginning to redefine the way we study life on Earth. It is simply fascinating to work with biologists, physicists, chemists and paleobiologists, because at the crossroads of these disciplines are many new discoveries for science.
Dr Manning and his team hope to analyze more fossils using the Stanford synchrotron radiation light source and also the UK-based Diamond light source, to reveal new discoveries from ancient worlds by uncovering the subtle echoes of life left to science to find and interpret.
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