Laser technique sheds light on dinosaur fossils

A technique using high-powered lasers to reveal hidden soft tissue alongside bones in fossils is allowing scientists to better study small feathered dinosaurs similar to birds, a Hong Kong paleontologist revealed on Wednesday (March 1).

The technique—called laser-stimulated fluorescence (LSF)—involves sweeping laser light across a specimen, which highlights otherwise invisible details on objects.

At a news conference, University of Hong Kong Dr. Michael Pittman said he and his team worked on fossils of the chicken-sized, feathered, bird-like dinosaur Anchiornis that lived in China about 160 million years ago.

They found it possessed drumstick-shaped legs, arms similar to the wings of some modern gliding and soaring birds, and a long, slender tail. It boasts numerous skeletal and soft tissue characteristics found in birds.

“What it is, is it has skin in front of its elbow called the propatagium. This feature is crucial in modern birds that fly because without it they couldn’t. So we have this kind of shallow morphology, this shallow shape, which is reminiscent of modern gliding and soaring birds,” Pittman said.

However, it is unclear whether Anchiornis was airborne.

The study, published in the journal Nature Communications, produced the first highly detailed body outline of such a feathered dinosaur, a landmark in understanding avian origins.

It is believed Anchiornis was covered in feathers resembling those of modern birds. It had foot scales like those of a chicken but lacked the bony breastbone, or sternum, and short tail skeletons found in modern birds. It had small, sharp teeth like those of the earliest birds, and may have eaten small animals like lizards.