Scientists have created what might be the most realistic depiction of a dinosaur ever, and it may also reveal new insights into the origin of birds.
The research was led by Michael Pittman from the University of Hong Kong, and published in Nature Communications. Pittman and his team used laser-stimulated fluorescence (LSF) to detect soft tissue around the fossilized bones of a dinosaur called Anchiornis, which lived 160 million years ago.
High-powered lasers were shined on the bones in a dark room, and depending on which wavelengths bounced off, the researchers could work out what sort of tissue once surrounded the bones but is now invisible.
The research found that this foot-high dinosaur had drumstick-shaped legs, long forearms, a slender tail, four wings, and scaly footpads like a chicken. Previous research showed it had a black and gray body with white highlights and a red crest.
A summary of the research from lead author Michael Pittman
The researchers also found a skin linking the upper and lower arms called a patagium, which may have helped generate lift and suggests this creature may have been able to fly. It is the most accurate body of a feathered dinosaur that has ever been recreated.
“This study uses high-powered lasers to generate the single best look at the wings and body outline of a dinosaur ever,” Dr Stephen Brusatte from the University of Edinburgh, who was not involved in the research, told BBC News.
The latest findings suggests some dinosaurs had bird-like traits even 160 million years ago, and pushes back the time that bird-like features emerged in the Late Jurassic. It’s thought that around this time, the first birds started to appear.
Laser imaging was used to study the fossil. Wang XL, Pittman M et al
The first fossils of Anchiornis were found in China in 2009, with more than 200 specimens having been found since then. But what we should label it as was not clear, referenced by its name, which means “almost bird” in Greek.
Speaking to National Geographic, Pittman said: “The best way to refer to Anchiornis is as a basal paravian, an early member of the group of dinosaurs that includes birds and the bird-like dinosaurs that share their closest common ancestor with birds.”
The researchers said this same technique could be used to study other fossils, and shed light on what other dinosaurs used to look like.
The reconstructed body outline of Anchiornis. Wang XL, Pittman M et al