Dino bones give clues to brutal life

07 May 2014

Cutting edge technology clashes with the Jurassic era in a paper published in the Royal Society Journal Interface this week. Using state of the art imaging techniques scientists have unearthed the ancient injuries of a 150 million year old dinosaur.

The team behind this work will also be exhibiting a 7 metre long relative of the T-Rex at this year’s Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition in July. They will use their novel techniques to unpick the vicious life history of this prehistoric predator by analysing the clues in its bones.

Bones can absorb a wide range of elements and are therefore an important sink in the body for trace elements like cooper, strontium and zinc –all vital for biosynthetic functions like bone healing. These trace elements are found in elevated levels round sites where bones are repairing and can sometimes indicate where bones have broken and been mended during an animal’s lifetime. How bones heal and how fast they do it is dependent on physiological factors like metabolism, nutrition and immune response. By so examining the chemical makeup of ancient dinosaur bones the researchers hope to shed some light on how dinosaurs compare to their existing relatives.

Recent studies have shown that the chemical makeup, and not just the impressions of soft tissues, can be preserved in fossils. The team behind this study suggest that if soft tissues can preserve these trace elements then it is likely that the fossilised remains of harder tissues like bone might also retain some of these chemical clues to the healing processes of ancient creatures like dinosaurs.

Scientists at Manchester University set about using synchrotron imaging to analyse the chemicals lurking in the bones of a 150 million year old predator, Allosaurus fragilis. The faint chemical signatures the team needed to detect are beyond the limits of laboratory-based analytical techniques like SEM (scanning electron microscopy) but using state-of-the-art Synchrotron Rapid Scanning X-ray Fluorescence the researchers could pick up a clearer picture of the trace elements still present in the fossilised bones; clues to biological process undergone in the bones whilst the dinosaur lived.

The scientists were surprised to find that the dinosaurs they have analysed using this technique have often suffered brutal injuries which if untreated in a human would have proved fatal.  “It seems dinosaurs evolved a splendid suite of defence mechanisms to help regulate the healing and repair of injuries. The ability to diagnose such processes some 150 million years later might well shed new light on how we can use Jurassic chemistry in the 21st Century.” said Dr Phil Manning, one of the paper’s authors.