What A Dinosaur Looked Like

Yet more cool dinosaur science!

We are discovering more and more fossils which preserve traces of soft tissues that help us reconstruct the bodies and life of ancient dinosaurs and birds. (Feathers, a whole tail, more feathers, a larynx, blood vessels)

A new study reports on a technique that can bring out additional traces of soft tissues even when they are not visible to the unaided eye.

Xiaoli Wang and Michael Pittman and their colleagues used Laser-stimulated fluorescence (LSF) imaging to reveal traces of flesh, skin, and feathers in fossils of Anchiornis, an ancestor of modern birds that lived approximately 150 million years ago [2].

I’m not familiar with the LSF technique in any detail, but it works by zapping a fossil with a laser, and then recording the varying glow from the different minerals. The images reveal faint traces of tissues that were present then the fossil formed.

Of course, like any fossil evidence there is an element of luck. Not every fossil has such traces. In the case of Anchiornis, though, there are hundreds of fossils to survey, seeking fortunate cases.

Following this strategy, the investigators used nine different fossils, all from Shandong Tianyu Museum of Nature in Pingyi, China (recognized as the largest collection of dinosaur fossils in the world). These fossils include views of front and rear legs, and the tail. Combining evidence from these multiple samples gives the “Best ever’ view of what a dinosaur really looked like”, as Dr Stephen Brusatte told the BBC.

The new study gives more evidence for imaginative reconstructions such as offered by BBC.

Anchiornis: A feathered dinosaur from China. BBC
Anchiornis: A feathered dinosaur from China. (BBC)

We know that this animal had feathers and wings. In fact, it had four wings, arms and legs, as well as a feathered tail. Did it fly and/or glide? We don’t know, though it seems likely that it could at least glide.


  1. Helen Briggs, ‘Best ever’ view of what a dinosaur really looked like. BBC News.March 1 2017, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-39126987
  2. Xiaoli Wang, Michael Pittman, Xiaoting Zheng, Thomas G. Kaye, Amanda R. Falk, Scott A. Hartman, and Xing Xu, Basal paravian functional anatomy illuminated by high-detail body outline. Nature Communications, 8:14576, 03/01/online 2017. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/ncomms14576

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