Thursday, February 25, 2010
Hell Bent for Feathers
Helmut Tischlinger's photo of Microraptor gui holotype specimen under UV light. From PLos ONE
The wave of feathered dino research probably isn't cresting any time soon. Beyond the fact that China's bounty of feathered dinosaurs doesn't seem to be abating, science is using new ways of examining them. The study of fossilized melanosomes is exciting, as is the use of UV light to reveal details our eyes can't discern unaided.
Dave Hone has written a series of posts at Archosaur Musings to accompany the paper he co-authored describing new UV photographs of the remarkably well-preserved holotype specimen of Microraptor gui. The photos grab you first with their simple beauty, then with the knowledge they impart. The feathers of "four-winged" M. gui are indeed attached to the body and oriented as they would have been in life: a small revelation, Hone admits, but the greater good is the publicity this will hopefully give to the UV photography technique in studying the Chinese feathered dinosaurs.
The use of UV light to examine fossils has a long history of slow progress. It's been advanced considerably by the work of Helmut Tischlinger, a German researcher. He's dedicated most of his time to the Solnhofen limestone of Bavaria. This limestone bears witness to a Jurassic lagoon. It consists of fine layers, some of which were deposited very quickly - possibly during a cycle of storms. The water at the bottom of this lagoon was very salty, and a lack of oxygen retarded bacterial decay. It's a good recipe for a high-res fossil. If you've seen Archaeopteryx, you've seen a Solnhofen fossil. If you've seen a Tishlinger photo of Archaeopteryx, you've seen a whole 'nother bird, so to speak.
Dave Hone has extensively written about Tischlinger, and was instrumental in bringing him to China. I've got to say, Tischlinger's work is pretty inspiring. It's another reminder that behind the big "names in lights" of science, there are many creative, hard-working people behind the scenes. Obtaining scientifically useful images with UV photography involves many variables, and requires long exposure times. But it's worth it, and we may very well have Tischlinger's dedication to thank for some important coming discoveries. The feathered dinosaurs are still relevant to the modern world. so it's only proper that they all be photographed in this manner, so critical details that look to the naked eye to be part of the matrix aren't lost in preparation. Hone reports that at least one museum is using UV lights in the preparation of fossils, minimizing the risk that this happens.
ReBecca Hunt-Foster has come through again with a long interview with Hone at Dinochick Blogs. More at Dinosaur Tracking as well. More of Tischlinger's images at Archosaur Musings, as well as in this paper about the pterosaur Jeholopterus from the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, available free online.