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Synchrotron X-Ray Fluorescence Detects Trace Elements In Archaeopteryx Fossil

May 10, 2010

In a new study published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists have been able detect trace elements present in the 150 million years old Archaeopteryx fossil. Being able to detect such trace amounts of elements in 150 year old fossil is just amazing.  Archaeopteryx are the earliest known birds and these fossils are considered transitional fossils between dinosaurs and birds. Over the years about 11 Archaeopteryx fossils have been found and all of them are characterized with detailed feather impression. Until now these impressions were considered to be just the cast of the bird’s plumage, but this new study shows that it also contains trace elements from the bird’s tissue and bones. Scientists used Synchrotron Rapid Scanning X-Ray Fluorescence (SRS-XRF) technique to illuminate the fossil with high energy X-ray produced by Synchrotron which resulted in Fluorescence emission from the element present in the sample. The advantage of this technique is that it’s non-destructive and provides rapid analysis. The x-ray fluorescence image shown here shows Calcium in red (from the bones and sediments encasing), Zinc in green and Manganese in blue. Besides these elements, presence of Zinc, Sulfur and Copper was also found. An abstract of the present study is as follows:

Archaeopteryx feathers and bone chemistry fully revealed via synchrotron imaging


Evolution of flight in maniraptoran dinosaurs is marked by the acquisition of distinct avian characters, such as feathers, as seen in Archaeopteryx from the Solnhofen limestone. These rare fossils were pivotal in confirming the dinosauria-avian lineage. One of the key derived avian characters is the possession of feathers, details of which were remarkably preserved in the Lagerstätte environment. These structures were previously simply assumed to be impressions; however, a detailed chemical analysis has, until now, never been completed on any Archaeopteryx specimen. Here we present chemical imaging via synchrotron rapid scanning X-ray fluorescence (SRS-XRF) of the Thermopolis Archaeopteryx, which shows that portions of the feathers are not impressions but are in fact remnant body fossil structures, maintaining elemental compositions that are completely different from the embedding geological matrix. Our results indicate phosphorous and sulfur retention in soft tissue as well as trace metal (Zn and Cu) retention in bone. Other previously unknown chemical details of Archaeopteryx are also revealed in this study including: bone chemistry, taphonomy (fossilization process), and curation artifacts. SRS-XRF represents a major advancement in the study of the life chemistry and fossilization processes of Archaeopteryx and other extinct organisms because it is now practical to image the chemistry of large specimens rapidly at concentration levels of parts per million. This technique has wider application to the archaeological, forensic, and biological sciences, enabling the mapping of “unseen” compounds critical to understanding biological structures, modes of preservation, and environmental context.

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