Computer graphics, medical research expand knowledge of fossil record

December 23, 2012

By RYOKO TAKEISHI/ The Asahi Shimbun Science and Medical News Section

The skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus rex appears on a computer screen. Tapping on a keyboard makes it crouch or stand up again. You can freely change the viewing angle from the side to frontal or back and every other possible perspective.

This computer-generated model was created by professor Kent Stevens of the University of Oregon for a dinosaur exhibition at the National Museum of Nature and Science, Tokyo, in the summer of 2011. The data used was obtained from scanning more than 200 bones with various equipment to precisely measure their size and shape.

“Even if a fossil has been crushed, you can re-create it in three dimensions using computers,” Stevens says. “This allows you to reassemble the skeleton as many times as you like, and verify how the bones fit together and move without great difficulty.”

Stevens' specialty is computer science. For the T. rex project, it was necessary to process a vast amount of data, so he divided the number crunching across several computers. It was a solution befitting a computer whiz. The study of dinosaurs is not his field of expertise, so he received guidance from a paleontologist.

Computer-generated models based on concrete data make experiments possible that have been difficult to carry out until now.

“The study of dinosaurs has been mainly hypothetical, and there have been few means of demonstrating it," Stevens says. "(With these models), it's possible to incorporate an experimental element.”

Traditional paleontology focuses on finding fossils, examining their characteristics, classifying them and contemplating how they evolved. In extrapolating a a creature's entire body from partial collections of bones, and determining whether the dinosaur in question is a new species or not, experience and knowledge regarding fossils have carried great weight.

Today, the scope of dinosaur research is expanding, thanks to the participation of experts from other fields such as Stevens. Dinosaurs may be creatures that everyone knows about, but there is still much that is unknown about them. It is perhaps for that very reason that they pique the curiosity of scientists and engineers from a wide variety of disciplines.

Computer science is not the only example. At research institutes overseas, the use of CT scanning is becoming commonplace. It is now much easier to estimate the size and shape of a dinosaur's brain based on its skull, and to examine in detail the internal structure of bones. New devices such as surface scanners that convert the exterior of a fossil into digital data and robots that can measure their size in an instant are making an impact.

Researchers from other fields are also introducing new ideas and perspectives to the study of dinosaurs.

In February 2011, a dissertation was published in the scientific journal Science. Its authors were led by Tohoku University professor Koji Tamura. It revealed that the "fingers" of dinosaurs and the wings of birds have similar structures.

Tamura's area of specialization is embryology, the study of how anatomy and organs develop from the fertilized egg stage. It is normally concerned with existing organisms, so its connection to the study of dinosaurs is a tenuous one. Tamura himself never imagined that his exploration of the structure of fingers would contribute to dinosaur research.

No matter how much we scrutinize fossils, there is no way of investigating how dinosaur digits came to take their original shape. Dinosaur experts are praising the way embryological methodology has helped find a solution to an unsolvable mystery.

Up until a few years ago, some scientists believed that there was no way of telling what color dinosaurs were. However, in 2010 a Chinese and British research team announced their discovery of an apparent chestnut-brown and white-striped pattern on the tail of the feathered dinosaur Sinosauropteryx. A melanosome organelle that produces melanin pigment was found intact in fossilized form, and the colors were determined based on its shape. Research into the color of dinosaurs has subsequently continued using the same analysis technique.

This technique was made possible by postdoctoral fellow of the University of Texas at Austin, Jakob Vinther. In carrying out a study into why the ink sacs of ancient squid remain as fossils, Vinther realized that the melanosomes of dinosaurs were also preserved in fossilized form. He had not set out to research the color of dinosaurs.

Thanks to new discoveries such as these, we now have a greater understanding of the ecology and behavior of dinosaurs and a more realistic picture of what they were like.

There are some who feel that the diminished need for engaging our imaginations is depriving dinosaurs of their romantic appeal. However, this is not the belief of Shinichi Fukuoka, a professor of molecular biology at Aoyama Gakuin University who has an interest in dinosaurs.

“Isaac Newton was once criticized for 'destroying the poetry,' " Fukuoka says. "Even so, his scientific achievements made it possible for new poetry to be created. You could say the same thing about the color of dinosaurs.”


Through studying the DNA and development of thousands of chicken eggs, Tohoku University professor Koji Tamura determined that from an embryological standpoint, the development of dinosaur digits and the wings of birds were the same.

“All of a sudden people started calling me 'Dr. Dinosaur,' and it was a little embarrassing,” he says.

Tamura examined the development of fingers in various living creatures such as chickens, penguins, rays and newts. Dinosaurs were merely one research subject among many in his investigations.

However, soon after he had received a phone call from his father who told him, “Now I understand your research for the first time,” after reading about it in a newspaper article. A friend sent him an e-mail saying that news of his findings had appeared on the digital news ticker inside the bullet train he was riding.

Tamura never thought of holding a news conference until a paleontology expert told him, “You're wasting your chance to promote your wonderful achievement.” He was surprised to learn how much the dinosaur angle of his research had captured the public's imagination.

Today, Tamura has more opportunities to issue joint dissertations with paleontologists and give talks at dinosaur-themed symposiums. A few dinosaur fossils have been discovered in Japan, and it is difficult to produce research findings that draw attention overseas. Even so, it is possible to engage in research on par with that in Western nations by taking an innovative approach.

“By studying the similarities between birds and dinosaurs, it becomes possible to 'see' creatures that are now extinct,” Tamura says.

A certain skeletal specimen sits in his laboratory. When asked by students what it belongs to, Tamura replies, “A dinosaur. It's a species called a chicken.”

By RYOKO TAKEISHI/ The Asahi Shimbun Science and Medical News Section
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Tohoku University professor Koji Tamura has discovered proof of a link between birds and dinosaurs. (Photo: Yoshinori Toyomane)

Tohoku University professor Koji Tamura has discovered proof of a link between birds and dinosaurs. (Photo: Yoshinori Toyomane)

  • Tohoku University professor Koji Tamura has discovered proof of a link between birds and dinosaurs. (Photo: Yoshinori Toyomane)

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