Sunday, 17 August 2014

The Sky is soooo big!

We just drove the 8+ hours from South Dakota to our first field site in Montana....the second we passed over the state boundary from Wyoming...the sky expanded into an impossibly vast patchwork of striking blue and soft cotton wool clouds. Mellow shadows cast from the dappled sky chased each other across the rolling prairie, occasionally disappearing into dark ravines of the carved and contoured Badlands. As we neared the end of our drive, the Sun gently sunk below the distant horizon, yielding a brilliant palette of colour that painted the end of a perfect day....tomorrow we hunt dinosaur!

Friday, 15 August 2014

Sleepy in the Windy City....

Once again it is past 1am GMT, but we are still waiting for our next flight....leaving at 8pm Central Time Zone (USA) from Chicago O'Hare...an airport that seems to be the size of a small city.

By the time we arrive in Rapid City (South Dakota) it will be time for our body-clocks to wake-up again....but I have no doubt that sleep will come easily later today...or is it tomorrow?

Slowly playing catch-up with email again, in-between bouts of zero wifi in the air. Trying to edit my way through paperwork, before I arrive in the field.

For anyone who has ever been to Chicago...at this moment...Goose Island is very looking attractive!


Thursday, 14 August 2014

Once more into the field...

Its 1am GMT. Just finished packing my field equipment. Tomorrow my team and I take the annual 4300 mile hop over the Atlantic to explore a spectacular landscape that gets its spine from the Hell Creek Formation. I have to be up and functioning in less than 5 hours...so forgive the  brief blog!

This year our team will number 20 eager field assistants. All looking to tease some prehistoric morsels from the Badlands...all ultimately bound for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

My apologies for those who could not be accommodated on years expedition...we simply ran out of space....hard to do in the middle of nowhere, but we managed!

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Gorgo arrives in Manchester!

15,000...is the record number of visitors who attended the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition this year...if I was being honest, I would say it felt like more! When the Gorgosaurus finally left the Royal Society buildings...we were all exhausted, but happy to have taken part in this splendid annual event.


We have now installed the Gorgo at the Manchester Museum (above), in their main entrance lobby...you cannot miss her when you enter the building! We spent 2 hours balancing on scaffolds and ladders to install the said beastie on its new 'perch'. It will stay at the Manchester Museum till December, before we tour here around the UK to tell as many folks as possible about our research.


Her recent visitors include a rather splendid dino-costumed chap who put the frights on some of our Museum visitors...and drove one child running into the museum shop screaming...maybe a little too real for a 3 year old? I still prefer the mounted skeleton towering about the rubber-oh-saurus!


I also had a new book published last week ('Dinosaur Wars'), so again I used the Gorgo as a suitable backdrop (above)...as the book explores the relationship between predator/prey in the Age of the Dinosaurs...hopefully a few more 7-11 year olds will be hocked on dinosaurs if they read this book!


Tuesday, 24 June 2014

NERC Planet Earth Online...

The splendid folks from the NERC Planet Earth podcast came over to Manchester to look at our rather fun collection of bones...the said bones will combine to be the centrepiece of our Royal Society Summer Science Exhibit next week...gulp...yes, only a week left to get everything sorted!

If you want to listen to the podcast, please click this LINK.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Face-planted human skeletons, rigid lemons and UV lights...

The Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition exhibit is slowly taking shape. Each day a new order of wonderfully synthetic fruits arrive in the mail. Today a 'bi-folded' human skeleton arrived in its cardboard coffin...our freebie UV light pens are also winging their way towards Manchester...soon to be despatched to London, all stuffed inside a wonderfully crammed truck...with a dinosaur peeping-out between the debris. The fun really starts next Friday, when all is delivered to Carlton House Terrace and the X-Appeal exhibit build begins...this is when all will be revealed, from dangerous fruit to deadly dinosaurs.

Where on the skeleton(s) do I fit?
Take a look at the image above...one of these bones belongs to Gorgosaurus....do you know which one and what it is? Leave your answers on the comments....or come and see the dinosaur next week and see if you can spot this bone on the skeleton of Gorgosaurus.



Saturday, 14 June 2014

Children's Museum Indianapolis (USA)...where children of all ages can learn!

The Gorgosaurus that will form the centre-piece of our Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition, X-Appeal,  is a cast of the original skeleton that is on display at the Children's Museum in Indianapolis (USA). I visited the palaeontology curator, Dallas Evans, at this splendid museum last month, where we arranged the loan of some wonderfully real bones from this amazing dinosaur skeleton. These will be placed on display alongside our full skeleton mount at the Royal Society. We were particularly interested in the healed injuries or 'pathologies' that this remarkable specimen acquired during its rough and tumble life.
Gorgosaurus at the Children's Museum, Indianapolis (USA). 
I think it would be fair to say, this dinosaur leapt head-first into the shallow end of the gene-pool when it came to being beaten black and blue during its life. Few fossils of any dinosaur look as beaten-up as this unlucky bruiser of a beastie. This dinosaurs was either very clumsy, extremely unlucky...or maybe both! It is when you start looking more closely at the brain case of this animal, that you start to see a possible cause behind the symptomatic evidence of maladroit locomotor ability.
The braincase of Gorgosaurus.
The brain case of all reptiles follows the shape of the brain rather closely. When you peer inside the brain case of Gorgosaurus using powerful x-ays, it is possible to see the overall shape of the space that the brain once occupied (the endocranial shape). However, there is more than just a cavity, as now it is filled with secondary minerals formed during the process of fossilisation....but there is more to this infill than meets the eye! Within the calcite crystal infill of the endocranial space, there are some rather curious bony struts....these are growing from the walls of the braincase into where the brain once sat.
The circular region marks a break in the braincase, that shows the dark boney mass growing with the paler calcitic infill...
could this be a bony tumour that had our dinosaur tripping over its own feet?
Given we can image the overall shape of the space once occupied by the brain, we can see that these bony growths affected the cerebellum portion of the brain. This part of the brain is associated with motor control...co-ordinating the orchestral distribution of muscle activation that allows for a more coordinated life style. If these bony struts grew during life (which the evidence suggests they did) these would have damaged the part of the gorgosaurs brain that was most needed for locomotion, coordination and general stability....this was a wobbly, 7.4 metre long, predatory dinosaur!

I heartily recommend that if you are within a thousand miles of Indianapolis....go to the Children's Museum! It is one of my most favourite museums anywhere on the planet...and I have visited a fair few splendid museums! If you join us at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition, you will get to see a tony potion of their world-class collections...for the very first time in the UK.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Mud-less Festivals, Science and Famelab!

Festivals often conjure images of folks clad in wellington boots whilst wading up to their wastes in mud. Having lived most of my childhood in Pilton (Somerset), the location for the Glastonbury Festival, my view of such events is possibly slightly biased. However another kind of festival has successfully co-evolved, albeit in the absence of mud! Many will have heard of the Edinburgh International Science Festival or the Bollington Science Festival, but yesterday it was my turn to have a splendid day in Gloucester! I spent Tuesday taking part in several events at the Times Cheltenham Science Festival that not surprisingly takes place in the charming town centre of Cheltenham.

The University of Manchester had sponsored a lecture on the new technology being applied to the study of dinosaurs. Professor Mike Benton from the University of Bristol and I were invited to discuss how the study of dinosaurs has been advanced through the application of many specialist areas, that might not normally be associated with dinosaurs, such as high-performance computing or particle physics. After we both pitched our science to the audience, it was their turn to pitch questions at us. It is always splendid when the public engagement in science is a two-way. After the talk and Q&A session, Mike was whisked away to sign some of his many books that fill the shelves, but more importantly populate the minds of many aspirational palaeontologists with splendid fossil facts. I however had to run to the BBC venue to take part in a rather fun panel discussion.

The panel included Sean Carroll,  (CalTech physicist and scientific consultant for the blockbuster Big Bang Theory), Prof. Vince Walsh (neuroscientist at UCL), Hannah Devlin (from The Times science department) and yours truly. It was an 'intimate' audience...in other words we had room for more...but those who came were marvellously active during our discussions that ranged from the differences between science education in the UK and USA to the reasons that directed each one of us into our chosen fields. The hour sprinted by and I was soon whisked away by another super efficient festival folk to my final fun event....Famelab!

I was lucky enough to help judge the Northwest Region Famelab semi-final and the NW final, but also had great fun helping judge the UK final. This superb meeting of inspirational minds focuses upon the public engagement of science and has been successfully running since 2005. Over 4000 scientists have now strutted their funky stuff across the Famelab stage which now extends to international participants from over 20 countries.

Judging Famelab events is extremely tough and the Famelab International Semi-Final was no exception last night. I know how nervous I feel before and often during the delivery of public lectures...and I have been lucky enough to be delivering such talks for over 20 years. Many of the contestants taking part in Famelab are undergraduates, but still have the confidence to deliver 3 minutes of articulate, engaging and simply wonderful science story-telling to a packed auditorium. To judge such an event is one of the hardest things I have ever had to do, but thankfully Maggie Philbin (BBC, TeenTech and all-round splendid person) and Jennifer Ouellette (scientist, author and blogger) shared this difficult task. The only saving grace with a semi-final, you can choose six of the contestants to step into the grand final...to choose six was tough, to pick a single winner....a horrible task! The contestants all despatched their talks with flair, panache and occasionally with 'pi....' urine (thankfully in plastic vials). This was a semi-final of national final winners, so the benchmark was exceedingly high. The 2 hour event dilated time through the gravitas of each talk. I strongly urge you all to watch them and learn. I think you will soon see how tough it is to choose between such splendid contestants!

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Dinosore or were they just healing?

The University of Manchester Palaeo Research Team, working with splendid folks at the Stanford (USA) and Diamond (UK) synchrotron lightsources,  have used state-of-the-art imaging techniques to examine the cracks, fractures and breaks in the bones of a 150 million-year-old predatory dinosaur.

Our team have had splendid fun breaking new ground – using synchrotron-imaging techniques –  that sheds new light, literally, on the healing process that took place when these magnificent beasties were still alive....some 150 million years ago!

The research, published in the Royal Society journal Interface today, took advantage of the fact that dinosaur bones occasionally preserve evidence of trauma, sickness and the subsequent signs of healing, we called these pathologies. The lead author on the paper, Jennifer Ann'e (a PhD student a Manchester) has been methodically wading through the slings and arrows of misfortune that befell dinosaurs....as revealed by their pathologies. She was quick to see the potential of the existing synchrotron imaging work being undertaken at Manchester and started her grizzly search for a chemical ghost of the healed injuries. 

Allosaurus getting down to lunch.....and possibly acquiring its own injuries in the process!


Diagnosis of these fossils usually relies on the grizzly inspection of the morphology of gnarled bones and healed fractures, often entailing slicing through a fossil to reveal its cloying secrets. But the synchrotron-based imaging, which uses light brighter than 10 billion Suns, meant our team could tease out the chemical ghosts lurking within the preserved dinosaur bones, albeit on samples that had previously been sliced and studied using the traditional (optical microscopy) approach.

It is a fine line when diagnosing which part of the fossil was emplaced after burial and what was original chemistry to the organism. It is only through the precise measurements that we undertake at the Diamond Synchrotron Lightsource in the UK and the Stanford Synchrotron Lightsource in the US that we were able to make such judgments.

The impact of massive trauma, we discovered, seemed to be shrugged off by many predatory dinosaurs – fossil dinosaur bones often show a multitude of grizzly healed injuries, most of which would prove fatal to humans if not medically treated.

Using synchrotron imaging, we were able to detect astoundingly dilute traces of chemical signatures that reveal not only the difference between normal and healed bone, but also how the damaged bone healed.

Jon Hoad's splendid image of Allosaurus....with a wonderful howl of pain!

It seems dinosaurs evolved a splendid suite of defence mechanisms to help regulate the healing and repair of injuries. The ability to diagnose such processes some 150 million years later might well shed new light on how we can use Jurassic chemistry in the 21st Century.

The chemistry of life leaves clues throughout our bodies in the course of our lives that can help us diagnose, treat and heal a multitude of modern-day ailments. It’s remarkable that the very same chemistry that initiates the healing of bone in humans also seems to have followed a similar pathway in dinosaurs. Bone does not form scar tissue, like a scratch to your skin, so the body has to completely reform new bone following the same stages that occurred as the skeleton grew in the first place. This means we are able to tease out the chemistry of bone development through such pathological studies.

As Jennifer pointed out to me today, "It's exciting to realise how little we know about bone, even after hundreds of years of research. The fact that information on how our own skeleton works can be teased out using a 150-million-year-old dinosaur just shows how interlaced science can be."

I also have to add that great moments in science are rarely met with the words "Eureka" with Jennifer Ann'e (aka 'Indy')...as we usually hear a delighted "Woot-woot" coming from her lab!

A copy of the paper, ‘Synchrotron imaging reveals bone healing and remodelling strategies in extinct and extant vertebrates,’ can be downloaded on this LINK!



Tuesday, 29 April 2014

X-Appeal at the Royal Society?

The Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition 2014 website launched today! The Summer Science Exhibition is an annual display of the most exciting cutting-edge science and technology in the UK. Once again we will have the splendid fun of building our very own 'X-Appeal' exhibit, based upon the research being undertaken at the University of Manchester. Why not check-out the links above and see what we will be up to this year....we even have a short video introducing you to our research. The centrepiece of the X-Appeal Exhibit will be a 7.3 metre long predatory dinosaur, Gorgosaurus, surrounded by a series of experiments exploring how to use the electromagnetic spectrum to image, analyse and investigate this dinosaur’s past. The week-long science festival features 22 exhibits from the forefront of British innovation. You can meet the scientists behind cutting edge science and technology exploring everything from antibiotics to x-rays. With hands-on experiments, panel discussions and family activities throughout the week, there’s something for everyone.
Some of the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition 2012 team from the University of Manchester.
Summer Science Exhibition opening times:  The Exhibition is located in the Royal Society, 6-9 Carlton House Terrace, London, SW1Y 5 AG and takes place from Tuesday 1 July to Sunday 6 July 2014. Open Tue 1 July 10am - 9pm; Wed 2 July 10am - 5pm; Thu 3 July 10am - 5pm; Fri 4 July 10am - 8pm; Sat 5 July 10am - 6pm; Sun 6 July 10am - 6pm. Note: Last entry is 30 minutes before closing time. The event is FREE and open to the public. Further information can be found at: http://sse.royalsociety.org/2014.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Anyone for a pint of science?

I have to admit...I have never drunk a pint of science. I seem to get my fill of the said measure pretty much 7 days a week, 365 days a year...this said, I am still not bored of the taste! If you happen to be in Manchester on Monday the 19th May and fancy sinking a pint of science...with dinosaurs, you should join us at the Odder Bar on Oxford Road to imbibe a pint or two of science! Click this link and all will be made clear...I hope!



Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Walking like Dinosaurs


Ever wondered how Triceratops trotted or Spinosaurus sprinted? If you’re an aspiring palaeontologist, or just curious about the locomotion of long extinct beasties, you can join me at the  Edinburgh Science Festival to unpick how dinosaurs made their moves! I shall be giving a lecture on Thursday and Friday this week at Summerhall (Summerhall Place) in Edinburgh.


Wednesday, 26 March 2014

X-rays brighter than a million Sun's show fossil leaf chemistry preserved for 50 million years!

Palaeontologists, geochemists and physicists from the University of Manchester, (UK) Diamond Lightsource (UK) and the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (USA) have published a new paper in the Royal Society of Chemistry journal, Metallomics, that has shed new light, in fact one of the brightest lights in the universe, on 50 million year old fossil plants.
 
Optical plus x-ray false colour composite image (Cu=red, Zn=gren and Ni=blue), image width 17cm. Also visible are characteristic trumpet shaped feeding tubes left by ancient caterpillars: feeding tube chemistry matches the leaves. Data collected at Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL), a national user facility operated by Stanford University on behalf of the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Basic Energy Sciences. Image reproduced courtesy of the Royal Society of Chemistry, Edwards et al 2014, Metallomics, DOI:10.1039/C3MT00242J.
Dr. Nicholas Edwards, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Manchester and a lead author on the paper said: “The synchrotron has already shown its potential in teasing new information from fossils, in particular our group’s previous work on pigmentation in fossil animals. With this study, we wanted to use the same techniques to see whether we could extract a similar level of biochemical information from a completely different part of the tree of life.”

False colour image of copper (red) and zinc (green) distribution within a modern leaf (A. pseudoplatanus). The distribution of these metals defines the vascular system. Image width ~3 mm. Image from data acquired at the Diamond Light Source, the UK’s national synchrotron science facility.      
Dr. Edwards went on to say “To do that we needed to test the chemistry of the fossil plants, to see whether the fossil material was derived directly from the living organisms or degraded and replaced by the fossilisation process. We know that plant chemistry can be preserved over hundreds of millions of years. Today we even rely on this preserved chemistry as the fossil fuels that power our society.”

However, this is just the “combustible” part, until now no-one has completed this type of study of the other biochemical components of fossil plants, such as metals.

By combining the unique capabilities of two synchrotron facilities, our team were able to produce detailed images of where the various elements of the periodic table were located within both living and fossil leaves as well as being able to show how these elements were combined with other elements.

The work shows that the distributions of copper, zinc and nickel in the fossil leaves were almost identical to those in modern leaves. Each element was concentrated in distinct biological structures such as the veins and the edges of the leaves. Also, the way these trace elements and sulfur were attached to other elements was very similar to that seen in modern leaves and plant matter in soils.


X-ray false colour composite image (Cu = red, Zn = green, and Ni =blue) of a 50 million year old leaf fossil. Trace metals correlate with original biological structures. This leaf was skeletonized by insects which have left behind characteristic trumpet shaped feeding tubes as shown in the inset. Inset: copper only map revealing detail of feeding tube and fine scale veins. Feeding tube chemistry matches the leaves. Image width ~17 cm.  Data collected at Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL), a national user facility operated by Stanford University on behalf of the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Basic Energy Sciences.Image reproduced courtesy of the Royal Society of Chemistry, Edwards et al 2014, Metallomics, DOI:10.1039/C3MT00242J.

Professor Roy Wogelius, also of the University of Manchester and one of the senior authors said: “This type of chemical mapping and the ability to determine the atomic arrangement of biologically important elements such as copper and sulfur can only be accomplished at a synchrotron. In one beautiful specimen, the leaf has been partially eaten by caterpillars and their feeding tubes are preserved on the leaf. We see this behaviour with modern caterpillars. The chemistry of these fossil tubes remarkably still matches that of the leaf on which the caterpillars fed.”

The data from a suite of other techniques performed at the University of Manchester has lead the team to conclude that the chemistry of the fossil leaves is not wholly sourced from the surrounding environment as has previously been suggested but represents that of the living leaves.

Another modern day connection suggests a way in which these specimens are so beautifully preserved over millions of years. We think that copper may have aided preservation by acting as a ‘natural’ biocide, slowing down the usual microbial breakdown that would destroy delicate leaf tissues. This property of copper is utilised today in the same wood preservatives that you paint on your garden fence before an inclement season.

Dr. Uwe Bergmann a co-author on the paper from Stanford, also remarked: “Part of what I do involves detailed measurements of the physics of how plants actually harness light energy using transition metals. Here, we are able to show what metals were present, and where, within extremely old plants- and this just may let us understand, eventually, how the complicated physics of life has developed over long periods of time.”

   Fine scale false colour X-ray map of the Cu distribution within a modern leaf (left) compared to a 50 million year old fossil leaf (right). Primary, secondary, and tertiary venation comparable to the modern leaf can be resolved in the Cu distribution even after 50 million years of ageing. Data acquired at the Diamond Light Source (left panel), the UK’s national synchrotron science facility, and the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (right panel), a national user facility operated by Stanford University on behalf of the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Basic Energy Sciences.  Image widths: left ~2.5 mm, right ~10 mm.  Image reproduced courtesy of the Royal Society of Chemistry, Edwards et al 2014, Metallomics, DOI:10.1039/C3MT00242J.

Dr. Bart van Dongen, another University of Manchester geochemist stated: “There is a sharp contrast in the chemistry of the fossils from that of the rock in which they are entombed. This is true for both the trace metals and the organic compounds. The organic part of the chemistry clearly shows a plant derived component.” Dr. Nicholas Edwards added: “This opens up the possibility to study part of the biochemistry of ancient plants, so in the future it may enable us observe the changes, if any, in the use of metals by the plant kingdom through geological time.”
It seems the fidelity that fossil leaves already bring to the palaeontological table has been significantly enhanced by these new findings.

If you want to download our latest paper click HERE!