Dinosaur fossils come in a startling variety of shapes and forms. Although most can be carefully excavated over time, some of them are buried within extremely rigid layers of rock, and any attempt to remove parts of them may result in their destruction.
In order to circumvent this problem for one particularly exquisite 200-million-year-old dinosaur fossil, a team of researchers have bombarded it with X-rays 100 billion times more powerful than those used in hospitals. This has allowed them to peek “inside” it for the very first time.
This particular dinosaur belonged to the species Heterodontosaurus tucki. It has several fossils to its name, but many of them are partial, not fully articulated. The most complete fossil of it ever found also happens to be trapped between minerals that even the most powerful CT scanner cannot penetrate properly.
A team of paleontologists have since taken it to the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ERSF) in Grenoble, France, to have a detailed look at the entire fossil – and it turns out that this dinosaur was a juvenile, not an adult. More impressively, the inner structures of its skull can be seen in unprecedented detail.
“On the first scans we can see the openings in the skull which are for the balance organs,” Jonah Choiniere, professor of dinosaur paleontology at the Evolutionary Studies Institute of Wits University and one of the lead researchers on this project, said in a statement. “We can digitally reconstruct the balance organs of the animal and tell how it held its head and how it interacted with its environment. That's the sort of data you just can't get by looking at a skull in 2D, so it's very exciting.”
Although this work is just preliminary, the team already have enough information to begin to reconstruct the dinosaur’s brain, which will offer insights into its intellectual capabilities and behaviors.
An artist's reconstruction of H. tucki. FunkMonk/Wikimedia Commons; CC BY-SA 3.0
Gif in text: A model showing the hypothetical features on its face and head. Tyler Keillor/Wikimedia Commons; CC0
This non-avian dinosaur lived at the start of the Jurassic Period, at least 133 million years before the famous Tyrannosaurus rex entered the scene, and even 50 million years before any Stegosaurus were plodding around. This little critter was 1.18 meters (3.9 feet) in length and weighed no more than 3.4 kilograms (7.5 pounds).
This small size means that it would have snuggly fit inside the footprints of the gigantic Abelisaurus, an apex predator that didn’t roam the world for another 120 million years. In fact, it was slightly smaller than a turkey – although far more nimble. Some studies on its evolutionary cousins suggest that it was also covered in a layer of hair.
Running around on just two of its legs, H. tucki was armed with several long, canine-like tusks emerging from its horny beak. Despite this dentition, most researchers think that it was primarily an herbivore, with occasional lapses into omnivory. The tusks were likely used for display, for active defense, or for attacking larger prey during an infrequent hunt.
The predecessors to the dinosaurs emerged out of the end-Permian mass extinction, which may have wiped out as much as 90 percent of all life on Earth 252 million years ago. One of the first major groups to appear from this evolutionary bottleneck were the Archosauriforms, an extremely primitive group that contained crocodile-like creatures and the archosaurs, the latter of which gave rise to all birds, flying pterosaurs, and non-avian dinosaurs.
Although they began to diversify during the subsequent Triassic Period, the dinosaurs really hit their stride during the Jurassic, beginning 201 million years ago. H. tucki emerged right at the very start of the Jurassic, meaning that it was one of the early ambassadors for the reign of the dinosaurs.
Specimen displayed at the University of California Museum of Paleontology. Daderot/Wikimedia Commons; CC0
Image in text: Researchers watch the first scans of the dinosaur come in. ERSF/P. Jayet