Scientists use U of S synchrotron to study dinosaur skin

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April 29, 2013 - 6:52am
University of Regina physicist Mauricio Barbi and a rare hadrosaur skin sample at the Canadian Light Source synchrotron in Saskatoon.  Photo courtesy of The Canadian Light Source.
University of Regina physicist Mauricio Barbi and a rare hadrosaur skin sample at the Canadian Light Source synchrotron in Saskatoon. Photo courtesy of The Canadian Light Source.

Dinosaur bones are a rare find for any paleontologist, but an even rarer discovery is actual skin.

Now, harnessing the power of the Canadian Light Source synchrotron, researchers at the Universities of Saskatchewan and Regina hope to unlock the secrets of one of the only well-preserved dinosaur skin samples. 

“My main goal is to understand how those animals lived and everything that was around them and understand evolution and how they died and went extinct.“ said U of R physicist Mauricio Barbi.

Barbi, alongside paleontologist Phill Bell from the Pipeston Creek Initiative, uncovered the skin during an excavation of a river bed near Grand Prairie, Alta.

“While we were chipping out some rocks, a piece of the skin came loose and we soon realized it wasn’t any ordinary skin impression, it was three-dimentional, actual skin,” said Barbi, who, at the time, was researching famed Saskatchewan Tyrannosaurus Rex, Scotty.

Barbi said the skin belongs to a hadrosaur, a duck-billed dinosaur from the Late Cretaceous period between 65 and 100 million years ago. 

Using high powered beams of light the synchrotron can detect vibration frequencies created by the various compounds in the skin. Proteins, fats and sugars all vibrate at different frequencies that scientists can measure. 

Unlike many other microscopes, the synchrotron produces a beam of light that goes from the infrared to the X-Ray allowing researchers to see larger or smaller structures, respectively.

It could even allow scientists to find out what colour the dinosaur’s skin was.

Structures called melanosomes are cellular organelles that contain pigment and control the colour of an animal’s skin. They can only be found in preserved skin samples, not skin impressions. 

“Colours are used for attraction, communication or camouflage,” said Barbi, adding that knowing the colour of the dinosaur’s skin may give us new insights into its behaviour, diet and prehistoric environment.

“If we can understand how they led their lives it might help us understand evolution on this planet and after that understand what can happen in the future.”

A final mystery Barbi hopes to solve is what makes the hadrosaur’s skin so special. Of the limited number of dinosaur skin samples, all have come from the same family.

“There is something special about this fossil and the area it was found,” Barbi said. “And I am going to find out what it is.”

Barbi said he hopes to publish his findings by the end of the summer.

lkretzel@rawlco.com

Follow on Twitter: @LKretzel

 

 

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