Monday, 22 November 2010

Dinosaur embryo's on acid?

The flight to the UK was thankfully uneventful. The food was predictably scary and the atmosphere thick by the time we arrived in Manchester. I think two hours sleep is as much can be expected on a trans-Atlantic in bucket class. I forced myself to sleep, as I knew I would soon have to be functioning on UK-time...a nasty prospect when flying West to East.

Arriving to an overcast and cold morning in Manchester, I was soon through customs, acquired luggage and headed for the train to Manchester. At 10am I was stood in my office, slightly phased...and then the day could begin, albeit cheated of a good nights sleep.

My first port of call in Manchester was Dr Roy Wogelius, an inorganic geochemist in the School of Earth, Atmospheric & Environmental Sciences. He has been leading on several papers within the palaeontology research group, on the preservation of soft tissue in the fossil record. Roy is a good colleague and a great friend who has provided a paradigm shift in my understanding of what happens when you bury a lump of animal in the ground. This might sound a simple thing to answer, but the pathways of elements around and within this system is not fully understood and are critical to our understanding of what happens when you bury anything in the ground. In our world of waste and pollutants, this question of what happens when you bury something is vital. This is the world of the science of taphonomy (literally meaning 'burial laws').

The hadrosaur dinosaur 'Dakota' the 65 Million year old mummy!

Roy and many others in the palaeontology research group have been working on everything from 65 million year old dinosaur skin, 120 million year old feathers, 50 million year old lizard skin to 80 million year old dinosaur egg shell (with bits of embryonic skin with bone preserved inside!). We are keen to quantify which elements in the fossils have remained relatively stable (and in place) since the tissue (bone, skin, etc) were originally formed and which components came from the processes associated with the fossilisation of the said tissues. What appeared a simple question of mapping and identifying the composition of the fossils, has become a major research program for the Manchester group over the past 5 years.

This work all started when I was having lunch with colleagues and we started talking about the 'mummified' dinosaur that had been discovered in North Dakota. Roy was sat at the table and joined in the conversation, as we munched our way through our curries. It was clear that he would make a major contribution to the research program...and that has to be the biggest understatement I have ever made! He has dragged me into the world of geochemistry and its a journey that I am thoroughly enjoying, albeit it quite hard get my head around sometimes (nothing that a good read cannot put right). The early work we undertook on the dinosaur mummy was published last year in the Proceedings of the Royal Society Series B (Manning et al 2009) and signified the start of my submersion into geochemistry.

Left to right, Nat Geo cameraman, Dr Pete Morris, Dr Roy Wogelius and Tyler Lyson.

We now have a large team from faculty and graduate students developing new methods and techniques to untangle this tale of tricky taphonomy, with every member playing their part. From synchrotrons to CT units and FTIR to MALDI-TOF....we coax molecules into revealing their secrets. This is some of the most interesting work I have ever been involved with and I always look forward to my meetings with Roy, Bart van Dongen, Mike Buckley, Paul Mummery, Bill Sellers, Holly Barden, Nick Edwards and many others who contribute to the work. Given that the research group is getting larger by the year, it is rare we all get to meet in the same place and time, that was one of my goals for this that was thankfully met. Being able to just sit and talk about science with colleagues is so productive and often hard to do with the hectic lives that we all was midnight on Wednesday before I headed to bed. Many meetings, samples and data reviewed, and progress made.

The remainder of the week was much the same. I had bird and crocodile shell samples to get to Dr Mike Buckley for analysis, sediment samples to Paul Mummery for x-ray micro-tomography and folks to chase (and be chased by) on finances, fossils and research papers. The key samples I needed to collect were those of the embryonic dinosaur material, as we are close to getting the various aspects of this research ready for publication...this is my next job. I'm travelling today with my clutch of dinosaur egg fragments, so that tomorrow I can start to physically and chemically pull them apart before handing over the suitably clean-room prepped samples for the team to work upon. Nothing that dental picks and a drop of acid can't put right.

Once again, I find myself sat in an airport, waiting for my flight to Philadelphia. I arrive in Philly at 2pm...and hope to get to a 3:30 research seminar on palaeobiogeography at Drexel University my 3:30pm...its going to be another long day, but one that I would not trade for anything.

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