Dinosaurs Had Dandruff Problems, Too

iStock
iStock

One of the most compelling aspects of paleontology is its ability to surprise even the most well-versed dinosaur scholars. Every fossil holds the potential to shed new light on how these prehistoric creatures lived, ate, and thrived.

Now, scientists have learned some dinos would have benefited from a medicated shampoo.

A study published in Nature Communications examining 125-million-year-old fossils discovered in China demonstrates that dinos expressed a condition common to humans: Their skin would flake off, creating tiny dandruff specks. The paper helps provide an explanation for how dinosaurs managed to molt, or shed skin in an effort to create tougher exterior tissue.

The specimens consisted of skin and feathers from three different non-avian dinosaurs—the crow-sized Microraptor and the larger Beipiaosaurus and Sinornithosaurus—and one bird, Confuciusornis, all from the Early Cretaceous period. The feathers were dotted with white, 1-2 millimeter blobs that initially puzzled scientists, who eventually visualized them with an ion beam microscope. Researchers confirmed them to be flakes of skin composed of corneocytes, tough cells containing keratin. The flecks suggested that these dinosaurs molted by shedding skin like modern birds instead of casting off chunks of skin like other reptiles.

The corneocytes of today's birds contain fats and loosely packed keratin, which allows birds to stay cool during heat-intensive activity like flying. The dino corneocytes were densely packed with keratin, and they probably wouldn't have provided much of a cooling effect. That tells scientists that the bird-like dinosaurs didn't spend too much time in the air.

If they didn't fly, why the feathers? It probably had to do with keeping warm and providing camouflage from both predators and prey. Researchers hope to continue their studies on the plumage to see what else they can learn.

[h/t Popular Science]

Sue the T. Rex Will Return to Chicago's Field Museum in December

Tim Boyle, Newsmakers
Tim Boyle, Newsmakers

Sue, the most complete T. rex fossil ever discovered, is getting new digs. The famous dinosaur was moved from its longtime home in the Field Museum's main hall in February while the museum constructed a new exhibition space, but according to the Chicago Tribune, Sue will soon be on view again.

Starting December 21, you’ll be able to see Sue in a new gallery that's part of the Chicago institution’s "Evolving Planet" exhibition. The new 5100-square-foot hall is designed to bring visitors into Sue’s world with interactive displays and cutting-edge animations.

While Sue’s former home in the museum’s grand entrance hall provided visitors with an eye-catching view, the space just didn’t do the dino justice. “When Sue was in Stanley Field Hall, a lot of people would say, ‘Aw, Sue’s smaller than I thought,’” Field Museum President Richard Lariviere explained in a press release. The new hall does a better job of showcasing just how imposing the specimen is, and how terrifying they would have been to encounter when alive. (Sue was named after explorer Sue Hendrickson, who discovered the fossil, but it’s unclear whether the dinosaur was male or female. For the sake of accuracy and inclusivity, the museum refers to the specimen as “they.”)

An updated version of Sue the T. rex
Field Museum

The new animations in the exhibition will explore how Sue would have interacted with other dinosaurs, what the landscape of their territory would have looked like, and more. The exhibition will also tell the story of Sue’s discovery and discuss all the new information scientists have learned about T. rex since Sue first came to the museum.

Sue’s surroundings aren’t the only thing that’s different. The specimen itself has gotten an upgrade, too. When Sue was first uncovered in the 1990s, scientists weren’t exactly sure what to do with some of their bones. We now know that these bones—called the gastralia—formed a rib-like unit across the dinosaur’s belly and helped support the respiratory system (similar to how we use our diaphragms). In addition to Sue's now-bulging belly, Field Museum scientists have made a few other tweaks so that the specimen more accurately reflects current understanding of dinosaur physiology. Instead of skulking, the repositioned Sue will be walking. Their arms will come down a bit, and their wishbone will be adjusted slightly.

“This is the biggest, scariest, and most impressive Sue’s ever looked,” Lavriviere said.

[h/t Chicago Tribune]

How Fossil Fuel Use Is Making Carbon Dating Less Accurate

iStock.com/Harry Wedzinga
iStock.com/Harry Wedzinga

The scientific process of carbon dating has been used to determine the age of Ötzi the Iceman, seeds found in King Tutankhamun’s tomb, and many other archaeological finds under 60,000 years old. However, as SciShow points out in a recent episode, the excessive use of fossil fuels is making that method less reliable.

Carbon dating, also called radiocarbon or C-14 dating, involves analyzing the ratio of two isotopes of carbon: C-14 (a radioactive form of carbon that decays over time) and C-12 (a more stable form). By analyzing that ratio in a given object compared to a living organism, archaeologists, paleontologists, and other scientists can get a pretty clear idea of how old that first object is. However, as more and more fossil fuels are burned, more carbon dioxide is released into the environment. In turn, this releases more of another isotope, called C-12, which changes the ratio of carbon isotopes in the atmosphere and skews the carbon dating analysis. This phenomenon is called the Suess effect, and it’s been well-documented since the ‘70s. SciShow notes that the atmospheric carbon ratio has changed in the past, but it wasn’t anything drastic.

A recent study published in Nature Communications demonstrates the concept. Writing in The Conversation, the study authors suggest that volcanoes “can lie about their age." Ancient volcanic eruptions can be dated by comparing the “wiggly trace” of C-14 found in trees killed in the eruption to the reference "wiggle" of C-14 in the atmosphere. (This process is actually called wiggle-match dating.) But this method “is not valid if carbon dioxide gas from the volcano is affecting a tree’s version of the wiggle,” researchers write.

According to another paper cited by SciShow, we're adding so much C-12 to the atmosphere at the current rate of fossil fuel usage that by 2050 brand-new materials will seem like they're 1000 years old. Some scientists have suggested that levels of C-13 (a more stable isotope) be taken into account while doing carbon dating, but that’s only a stopgap measure. The real challenge will be to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.

For more on how radiocarbon dating is becoming less predictable, check out SciShow’s video below.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER