Great excavations

From The Irish Times
by Anthony King

UCD fossil-hunters will use lasers to locate dinosaur bones in the deserts of Kazakhstan, writes Anthony King

Victorian fossil hunters went armed with a rock hammer and keen eye. Now, a team involving Irish scientists is to deploy lasers to search for dinosaur fossils over a remote area of Kazakhstan. The project will harness advanced laser technology and image analysis from an Irish technology company to survey rocks 90 million years old. The research team hopes the survey will uncover new species of dinosaur.

Dr Gareth Dyke of University College Dublin (UCD) has been doing fieldwork in Kazakhstan for the last four years and has previously found fossils of birds, turtles, pterosaurs, and dinosaurs. “We will be focusing on dinosaurs this time, but the place is filled with all sorts of animal fossil,” says Dr Dyke. “We collected a well-preserved small dinosaur last summer, which is a new species.”

The research involves collaboration between experts in Kazakhstan and Ireland and utilises technology developed by Intune Technologies in Dublin.

“We’re going to scan the land surface using remote cameras from the air. The images will then be searched to detect and flag shapes that we have told the computer system to look for,” says Dr Dyke. This will involve inputting the characteristic shapes of teeth, pieces of bone, and different parts of the skeleton, he explains. “We will use the data linked to GPS co-ordinates to identify places in our field area that we want to search for well-preserved fossils.”

Dr Dyke is a participant in CoBiD, Collections-based Biology in Dublin, a joint initiative between UCD and the Natural History Museum headed by Julia Sigwart. It seeks to catalogue the huge inventory of specimens held by the museum and details of its work are found at www.ucd.ie/zoology/museum .

The study area consists of about 500sq km of rugged desert terrain. The team will be three days’ drive from the nearest town. Previously, palaeontologists would have walked through the desert looking for anything resembling a fossil in the rocks, so the new technique should save a huge amount of time, boot leather and money.

The fossil quest will begin in September. Any fossils found will be brought back to Ireland to be prepared, cleaned and described. “We hope to develop a facility at the Natural History Museum,” explains Dr Dyke.

A long-term plan is to have a series of public exhibitions in the museum that will address evolution, palaeontology and dinosaurs. It is hoped the project will offer Irish students the opportunity to work on dinosaurs and learn techniques that palaeontologists use. The fossils will be returned to Kazakhstan for permanent exhibit.

The study area was a tropical floodplain during the Cretaceous period, about 65 to 90 million years ago. Dr Dyke is hopeful that the new technique will yield important finds. Last year’s field trip uncovered a new species of dinosaur belonging to a group called ornithomimids; the name means “ostrich mimic”.

The legs of the new species were 1.5 m-long, with the animal standing three metres tall. These slender, bird-like dinosaurs may have sprinted at speeds of up to 60 km/hr. Although they were related to the voracious velociraptor of Jurassic Park fame, the ornithomimids are believed to have been plant-eating dinosaurs with feeding habits akin to modern ducks.

Dr Dyke recently gave a talk to the monthly Alchemist Cafe in Dublin on the link between birds and dinosaurs. “Most of the flesh-eating dinosaurs had feathers, including Tyrannosaurus rex,” agrees Prof Mike Benton of Bristol University.

The Natural History Museum is opening a fossil exhibit to the public on May 9th, which will include the newly found ornithomimid fossil from Kazakhstan. Dr Mathew Parkes of the museum says the temporary exhibition will show off some of the fantastic fossils in the national geological collection.

The exhibit will be accompanied by a lunchtime lecture series, with Dr Dyke to describe the new ostrich-like dinosaur on May 17th. Other talks will look at how fossils form, what fossils have to tell us about Ireland’s past, and the large fossil collection in the possession of our national museum.

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