CT scans reveal dinosaur mysteries

By Kylie Piper 16 June 2010
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Scientists are now using modern medical technology to unlock the secrets of dinosaurs.

MATT WHITE DOESN’T SEEM like your typical scientist. With his board shorts and singlet, he looks more like he’s just walked off the beach than out of the lab. It’s when he starts talking about dinosaurs that you realise his passion for the topic.

Matt’s interest in dinosaurs has taken him to Winton in central Queensland, where, in this outback town, he and a team of volunteers have been unearthing previously unknown dinosaurs. A 100km journey takes the fossilised bones from their ancient burial place to a preparation shed just outside of Winton. Now Matt – who is an honorary palaeontologist with the Australian Age of Dinosaurs (AAOD) undertaking a PhD at Newcastle University – hopes to take them even further: into the virtual world.

For many years scientists have used comparative anatomy of modern birds and reptiles to paint a picture of how dinosaurs would have looked in life. But the science is inexact.

These days, palaeologists are using equipment most often used for medical imaging of body parts to unveil the secrets of dinosaurs. CT scans of fossil bones hundreds of millions of years old are revealing some astounding information.

With 3-D scans of fossil bones, scientists’ theories of how dinosaurs looked and moved can be put more rigorously to the test.

Using CT scans and computer programs, Matt is studying the strains and stresses that would have been exerted on the bones of Banjo (Australovenator wintonensis), Australia’s most complete carnivorous dinosaur discovered in QLD in 2006.

“I had a huge amount of ideas”, Matt says, as he talks about his decision to use the CT technology on the dinosaur bones from Winton. “The arm of Australovenator is almost complete and it’s really cool!”.

Matt hopes to use the technology to discover how Banjo moved and perhaps how he killed his unsuspecting prey – starting with the Banjo’s dagger-like claw.

I very much doubt the claw was used for pursuing the prey and tripping it up with the claw,” Matt says. “Nor does it make sense when it was implied that the claw was used to rip and disembowel prey. What it looks like was the claw was used to puncture prey – more like stabbing implements.”

CT scan cracks mystery of dinosaur anatomy

CT technology like this has been used overseas to look inside the skull of tyrannosaurs, confirming its place as the most feared predator of all. Other studies have determined the stresses on the jaws of dinosaurs thought to be herbivorous, confirming their vegetarian diet.

Back in Australia, palaeontologist John Long’s work with CT scanning has helped pave the way for newcomers such as Matt. Working with software created by mathematicians at the Australian National University, John has looked back to the Devonian Period, before the time before the dinosaurs – to a time where a fossil fish tell us about the origins of all land dwelling animals.

We’ve been able to image our tiny but three-dimensional Gogo fish fossils to great precision,” says John. “Using these new technologies is a great way to image the fossils and get all of the anatomy and detail out of them and even search for soft tissue.”

Studies such as this will help to bring dry old fossils to life, literally putting flesh on bones – if only in the digital realm – and making real the dreams and nightmares of the child within every dinosaur lover.