Sunday, March 30, 2008

Fossil gets cutting-edge examination in NASA hangar

Leonardo's 18-month stay in Houston isn't just a vacation — the mummy dinosaur already has endured a battery of high-tech tests that couldn't be completed in the confines of his Malta home.

Considered the world's best-preserved dinosaur, the 77 million-year-old duckbill was quickly covered with either an acidic or waxy layer of sediment after its death, which sealed out bugs and bacteria. Consequently, along with the fossilized bones that often remain, Leonardo also has preserved skin, muscles and organs.

Of course, scientists can't just cut open the stone tissues. To perform this kind of autopsy, they used powerful X-rays and special film capable of creating three-dimensional images of Leonardo's insides.

"We've applied science to Leonardo that has never been used in paleontology before," said Joe Iacuzzo, project manager. "The digital format gives us a lot of new ways to examine it and come to conclusions that no one has been able to do before."
Leonardo spent a week in a NASA base outside of Houston, where some of the nation's top scientists in various fields worked around the clock at times to collect and analyze data.

In June 2006, Non-Destructive Testing Group shipped in more than 600 pounds of X-ray equipment to Malta. The tests there helped guide the scientists in Houston. The paleontologists working on Leonardo will only hint at what they've learned so far, waiting until the special exhibition opens at the Houston museum on Sept. 19 to announce the details of the results.

"I don't know what we'll come up with," said Bynum-area paleontologist David Trexler, who, along with his mother, Marion Brandvold, discovered Montana's famed Egg Mountain. "We tried to get as much data collected in the limited time we had. We didn't have much time to analyze the data, but there were some pretty promising results."

While studying the first dinosaur heart ever discovered might be interesting to the public, other body parts are far more fascinating to the paleontologists.

Previously, scientists used impressions and bone structure to help determine dinosaurs' muscle mass. With Leonardo, the muscles remain as fossilized rock.

Using this information, the team preparing the Houston exhibit has illustrated how the duckbill's entire body would rock from side to side as Leonardo lumbered through the grass.

Delicate wrinkles span his neck and his pinkie is uniquely detached from his other fingers. Long arms could reach the ground, but were too fragile to support his massive weight. Scientists can see the keratin forming Leonardo's beak, which like cartilage, is usually dissolved in time.

"We're just beginning to explore all kinds of possibilities," said Robert Bakker, paleontologist and the curator of paleontology at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Leonardo's stomach was filled with fossilized pollen from 33 different types of plants, enabling paleontologists to re-create his world.

And then there's the mysterious "Loops of Mango."

Named after Steve Mango, the Kodak scientist that helped capture Leonardo's picture, the "Loops of Mango" describe a string that looks like sausages stretching through his chest.

Bakker said the latest tests revealed a wound on Leonardo's left side. He hopes that ways of analyzing cattle wounds to determine whether mountain lions or wolves killed the animal or ate it after it died can be used to see if Leonardo's injuries were a post or pre-mortem munch.

"We don't know why this brand of dinosaurs — the duckbill — so dominated every continent for so many years," Bakker said. "There might be a heart, but who cares?"

Permits were required to build and operate an X-ray machine powerful enough to examine Leonardo in a new way. Tubes transmitting radioactive material had to be cooled with water, because the standard air-cooled tubes used by NASA would have exploded.

Despite the power of the machine, Leonardo's fragile remains will be completely unharmed because the rays only damage living tissue.

Even though the testing was done inside a lead-lined airplane hangar, the scientists and observers had to evacuate the facility and huddle under a stairway in an adjacent building while the radioactive material flashed images onto carefully placed sheets of film.

A special gantry was built, at a cost of $12,000, to hold the X-ray tube as it rotated around the fossil.

"We're working on a million dollars in time and labor," Bakker said.

But a fossil such as Leonardo has the rare potential to unveil answers to so many questions about the creatures that ruled the earth millions of years ago, that private companies and top scientists are jumping at the opportunity to get involved.

National funding for the testing and museum exhibit was provided by Carestream Health, ConAm, Eastman Kodak, Ford Motor Company, NDT Group, Randa Trucking and Sealed Air.

Robert Morton, who is a leader in a new branch of paleontology, studied the elements within the fossil.

Iacuzzo said that by using the powerful X-ray and CT scans, scientists are able to keep much of the rock jacketing Leonardo, protecting him from potential damage.

"Who knows what technology will be available in 10 years?" he asked. "We can't open him up to see what's inside. We want the science to be impeccable. We want the science to be irrefutable."










Bone Structure


Loops of Mango



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