Orbiting Tomorrow

Explore the dissolving boundary between science and science fiction with news from the front lines of discovery and imaginative speculation on how each one could change our world.

Rock and Ages: The Week in Paleontology

It’s been a banner week for paleontology geeks, with the discovery of a new titanosaur species and the debut of a new fossil imaging technique that will give us more accurate 3D renderings of specimens.

Paleontologists in Argentina have unearthed the fossils of what may be the biggest dinosaur to ever walk the earth. Thigh bones suggest the sauropod—which roamed Patagonian forests during the late Cretaceous period, 95 million years ago—stood at high as a seven-story building and weighed around 170,000 pounds. Seven incomplete skeletons have been assembled from about 200 excavated bones. The herd probably succumbed to dehydration or got stuck in mud flats and became easy prey for local predators. One of the specialists involved with the dig described the creature’s size as “like two semi trucks, one after another, and the equivalent of more than 14 African elephants’ weight together”. This surpasses its cousin and prior record-holder, Argentinosaurus.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world in the French Alps, scientists are re-examining the enigmatic Archaeopteryx using a new technique. Well, not really new. The “camera obscura” concept–light entering through a tiny hole magnified and projected onto a wall–dates back to 400BC, and Leonardo da Vinci also detailed it in 1485. But this modern twist uses a particle accelerator that generates high-energy X-rays, called a synchrotron, as its light source. The narrow beam can fully capture large fossils to bulky for traditional scanning methods. According to one of the project paleontologists, “It’s a beam that’s only the thickness of a human hair. But extremely powerful. If you stood in front of it you would be killed.” Such precision allows for microscopic anatomical detail such as blood vessels within bones. It also enables 3D modeling of specimens. If initial tests on Archaeopteryx are successful, the technique may be applied to other fossils, penetrating rock and ages to enhance our knowledge of natural history.

Source 1; Source 2; Source 3

A dig site technician poses beside one of the new titanosaur’s giant femurs.

 

What is it about dinosaurs that ignites our fascination and turns us back into awed children? The discovery of a new species—particularly one the size of the Argentine sauropod—is a happy reminder that science still holds many surprises for us. Advanced technology like the synchrotron camera obscura also promises to reveal new secrets of old finds. Expanding our knowledge of the past is valuable, but it may also provide insights into our future. The more pieces we fit into the evolutionary puzzle, the better our knowledge of current species and their behavior. Furthermore, nature has a way of inspiring new inventions (consider the zipper, modeled after burrs, or synthetic fibers designed to imitate spider silk). What new ideas might be gain from the nervous system of an archaeopteryx, or the cellular structure of an ancient plant? Someday technology like this may also help us understand extraterrestrial life forms. Imagine an alien world with a fossil record as rich as earth’s. The ability to accurately model the anatomy and evolution of unknown species would be critical to exobiology. For both the new species and the new methods for examining them, each question answered will probably raise many more. But that’s a good thing: it keeps us learning, and preserves the kid inside us who still knows how to delight in the universe’s wonders.

 

 

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