Using laser-stimulated fluorescence (LSF), researchers managed to image the soft tissues of a fossil, something that has remained unseen up to this day.

The specimen is an Anchiornis, meaning “near-bird,” a dinosaur from the late Jurassic period. This dinosaur possessed an unusual characteristic: it displayed four wings, being a close relative to the Microraptor and the Archaeopteryx.

The specimen is an Anchiornis, a dinosaur from the late Jurassic period. Image credit:

It’s the first time the process is used to image a four-winged dinosaur, although it has been employed in the past to reconstruct the color patterns of a Psittacosaurus, a species that lived through the Cretaceous period.

Soft tissue can now be imaged with lasers

The study was carried out by The technique and developed by Tom Kaye from the Foundation for Scientific Advancement. The laser interacts with the remaining skin molecules near the fossil, making them “glow in the dark” and revealing the contour of the dinosaur’s body. This helps researchers be more certain about the Anchiornis’ body features than other dinosaurs’.

The first fossils of an Anchiornis were discovered in China back in 2009. Over 200 specimens have been found to date, and a study performed in 2010 revealed that it was covered in black, gray, and white feathers, with a prominent red crest on his head.

Furthermore, the understanding of the Anchiornis’ anatomy was expanded due to the LSF study, adding detail to how its body was shaped and making past findings more accurate. Researchers are eager to know how the technique works for imaging specimens whose anatomy is fully understood, mainly to know whether LSF can accurately image the dimensions of a fossil even if it has been compressed into nearly two dimensions.

The first fossils of an Anchiornis were discovered in China back in 2009. Image credit: Discover Magazine

I think their findings mainly add detail to our understanding of body shape, reinforcing prior conclusions, and especially refine understanding of the shape of the arms,” stated John Hutchinson, a professor of evolutionary biomechanics at the University of London.

Using LSF, researchers could outline the Anchiornis’ body, determining the shape of its arms, legs, and tail, although its head, neck, and thorax were not sufficiently preserved. It also presented drumstick-shaped legs, footpads, and a long, thin tail. Furthermore, researchers are not sure if the outlines were produced by the organic tissue or by a side effect of fossilization.

It is not yet clear whether the Anchiornis was able to fly, although the findings obtained through LSF have opened many new hypotheses. Apparently, the presence of a patagium, which is the skin that links an upper arm to a lower arm, shows that the specimen was at least physically intended of gliding. Pterosaurs are one kind of dinosaurs that had patagium, alongside bats, and birds as we know them. On the other hand, not every specimen with a patagium could fly or glide.

In our opinion, it should be in the top tray of any paleontologist’s toolbox, because it can so easily expand the anatomical information available from a fossil without damaging it,” stated lead researcher Michael Pittman, from the University of Hong Kong.

Source: National Geographic