Friday, 28 June 2013

Dr. Martin Whyte (University of Sheffield)

Working in the field of palaeontology, we folks are more aware than most of how brief our time is on the planet when viewed against the grand scheme of the evolution of life on Earth. However, it is still deeply saddening when we announce the death of a friend and colleague. On Tuesday this week Palaeontology lost one such man, Dr. Martin A. Whyte. He passed away while being comforted by his wife Carol and long-standing friend and colleague, Dr. Mike Romano.

Martin studied geology in the Universities of St Andrews (BSc) and Edinburgh (PhD) before he worked as a Research Assistant and Research Fellow in the Department of Geology, University of Hull. He was appointed to the Department of Geology at the University of Sheffield in 1974 before he was transferred to the Department of Geography in 2001. His research activities were both broad and diverse and included dinosaur tracks, dinosaur eggs, Carboniferous palaeoenvironments and biomineralization, all of which gave rise to many high-profile papers in the course of his successful academic career.

Martin will be remembered by many, as he touched the lives of countless undergraduate and graduate students in the course of his career. The words you are reading are testament to Martin's patience, as he also guided me through my PhD at the University of Sheffield, helped by his close friend and colleague Dr. Mike Romano. The four years I spent at Sheffield helped lay the foundation for my career in academia, which would not have been possible if it were not for the opportunities that both Martin and Mike gave me. 

My thoughts are with Martin's family and friends.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

X-rays Reveal New Picture of 'Dinobird' Plumage Patterns

 The first complete chemical analysis of feathers from Archaeopteryx, a famous fossil linking dinosaurs and birds, reveals that the feathers of this early bird were patterned  – light in colour, with a dark edge and tip to the feather ­­– rather than all black, as previously thought. 

The findings came from X-ray experiments undertaken by our team from the University of Manchester, working with colleagues at the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. The scientists were able to find chemical traces of the original dinobird and dilute traces of plumage pigments in the 150 million year old fossil.

This is a big leap forward in our understanding of the evolution of plumage and also the preservation of feathers,” said Dr. Phil Manning, a palaeontologist at the University of Manchester and lead author of the report in the June 13 issue of the Journal of Analytical AtomicSpectrometry (Royal Society of Chemistry).

Only 11 specimens of Archaeopteryx have been found, the first one consisting of a single feather. Until a few years ago, researchers thought minerals would have replaced all the bones and tissues of the original animal during fossilisation, leaving no chemical traces behind, but two recently developed methods have turned up more information about the dinobird and its plumage.

The first is the discovery of melanosomes – microscopic “biological paint pot” structures in which pigment was once made, but are still visible in some rare fossil feathers. A team led by researchers at Brown University announced last year that an analysis of melanosomes in the single Archaeopteryx feather indicated it was black. They identified the feather as a covert – a type of feather that covers the primary and secondary wing feathers – and said its heavy pigmentation may have strengthened it against the wear and tear of flight, as it does in modern birds.

However, that study examined melanosomes from just a few locations in the fossilised feather, said SLAC’s Dr. Uwe Bergmann. “It’s actually quite a beautiful paper,” he said, “but they took just tiny samples of the feather, not the whole thing.”

The second is a method that Uwe Bergmann, Phil Manning and Roy Wogelius have developed for rapidly scanning entire fossils and analysing their chemistry with an X-ray beam at SLAC’s Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL) in the USA.

Over the past three years, a team led by Bergmann (SLAC), Manning and Wogelius of the University of Manchester used this method to discover chemical traces locked in the dinobird’s bones, feathers and in the surrounding rock, as well as pigments from the fossilised feathers of two specimens of another species of early bird. This allowed the team to recreate the plumage pattern of an extinct bird for the very first time.

In the latest study, the team scanned the entire fossil of the first Archaeopteryx feather with the SSRL X-ray beam. They found trace-metals that have been shown to be associated with pigment and organic sulphur compounds that could only have come from the animal’s original feathers. ‘The fact that these compounds have been preserved in-place for 150 million years is extraordinary’, Manning said.
‘Together these chemical traces show that the feather was light in colour, with areas of darker pigment along one edge and on the tip. Scans of a second fossilised Archaeopteryx, known as the Berlin counterpart, also show that the trace-metal inventory supported the same plumage pigmentation pattern’, Manning said.

Co-author Dr. Roy Wogelius, also based in Manchester’s School of Earth, Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences, said: “This work refines our understanding of pigment patterning in perhaps the most important known fossil. Our technique shows that complex patterns were present even at the very earliest steps in the evolution of birds.”

The team’s results show that the chemical analysis provided by synchrotron X-ray sources, such as SSRL, is crucial when studying the fossil remains of such pivotal species. The plumage patterns can begin to help scientists review their possible role in the courtship, reproduction and evolution of birds and possibly shed new light on their health, eating habits and environment. More importantly, said Manning, ‘It is remarkable that x-rays brighter than a million suns can shed new light on our understanding of the processes that have locked elements in place for such vast periods of time. Ultimately this research might help inform scientists on the mechanisms acting during long-term burial, from animal remains to hazardous waste. The fossil record has potential to provide the experimental hindsight required in such studies.’

The research team included scientists from the University of Manchester (UK); SLAC (USA); the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research in South Dakota (USA); and the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin (Germany), which provided the stunning Archaeopteryx fossils for analysis.

The paper is free to download at this LINK.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Expedition planning ahoy!

It is that time of year when our undergraduates either go home or graduate...sometimes both. It is also the time of year when my team and I look to our various field projects to work-out where best to focus our time and energies in the coming months. We have to decide if we need to go back to our tropical cave system and dodge possible hurricanes; or maybe seek the attention of pigeon-sized mosquitoes in the badlands of South Dakota...either way, we have to start planning our field season soon.

This year we hope to divide and conquer, with both caves and badlands being on the menu. The two projects offer very different outputs, but they all feed into the same taphonomic ('burial laws') research pot. A major concern for me, is whether my surgery on my shoulder will slow me down or necessitate a more observational role...I think I can still abseil or drag myself through wafer-tin gaps (see Mike Buckley below!!!)

The other major factor that impacts our field programme is the dreaded funding side of things....yes, money plays a major role in any expedition. Gaining support for speculative fieldwork from funding agencies is very, very it is hard to quantify outputs, especially if fieldwork mostly entails wondering through badlands or squeezing through caverns looking for dead beasties. Maybe we can calculate the possible number of bug-bites and produce some statistics on where we are most likely to be bitten (in both geographical and anatomical terms)...but methinks this idea would not float with too many funding body....unless it was for some bizarre drug-trial requiring guinea pigs for bug repellent?

It seems ironic that exploration is even harder for scientists in the 21st Century than it was for some of our predecessors in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Hopefully, a combination of badland sun-burn and caving vitamin D deficiency will help balance-out our summers fortunes?

Sunday, 2 June 2013

'Intense' but fun weekend at the Diamond Synchrotron

Forgive this post being 'after the fact', but alas the outreach event that my team and I attended at the Diamond Synchrotron (near Oxford) was already sold-out before we arrived here last Friday! This was one of those wonderful weekends when this world class facility opened its doors to the public, including behind the scenes tours of the actual synchrotron.... quite awesome!

Diamond Lightsouce

Given visitor numbers are restricted in to access the main synchrotron hall (the round bit above), each day had to be booked in advance with the Diamond outreach team. As groups were taken in and out of the facility, they also had to run the gauntlet of science outreach exhibits... including our own! Here we spun our tales of dinosaurs to particles to the visiting groups of families, students and folks who just thought it would be cool to see what happens under the space-ship-like Diamond building.

Today my colleagues pointed out that I can get a little carried away when talking about our science. Apparently my enthusiasm can sometimes evolve into 'intense enthusiasm'.....something I had not realised! To support this, my 'helpful' colleagues took some photographs of me talking whilst I was wearing the 'Phil intense face'. I hope that folks who visited today were not too put-off by an over-enthusiastic palaeontologist, who decided to spend his birthday...pulling faces at kind folks who were interested in hearing how unpicking the chemical ghosts of fossils from the past, has real value and applications to both the present and future of our planet.