A new technique harnessing high-powered lasers is probing dinosaur fossils and helping unmask the prehistoric creature’s transition from being a small feathered dinosaur into an actual flying bird.

Scientists used the method on fossils of the dinosaur Anchiornis, a four-winged, feathered dino that was located in China around 160 million years earlier. The laser beams fleshed out a novel view of the long-extinct animals, revealing their drumstick-shaped legs, bird-like arms, and a long and slender tail.

This Jurassic creature is not exactly classified as a bird, but it maintained a number of skeletal and soft tissue qualities found in bird and lived around the time birds diverged from their closely resembling dinosaur predecessors. The Archaeopteryx, lived around 150 million years ago, has been long deemed the earliest-living bird.

Laser Technology At Work

The technique, known as laser-stimulated fluorescence (LSF), directed high-powered laser at the fossils in a dark place to bring out a glow in concealed soft tissues such as skin. It successfully created the first detailed body figure of the dinosaur — a “real landmark in our understanding of avian origins,” said co-lead author and University of Hong Kong paleontologist Michael Pittman in a Reuters report.

Dinosaur fossils are largely made up of bones, which are the ones best preserved over millions of years. But the fossil analysis method offered a new possibility.

“This is a new way to actually see the dinosaur, besides the bone,” reported the technique’s pioneer, Thomas Kaye.

Light particles or photons interact with atoms and molecules in different ways. Once they hit a molecule, they are emitted back in a different color based on the molecule’s makeup.

In the case of fossils, various fossilized tissue types will cause laser light to re-emit at different wavelengths, producing a glow in varying colors. Kaye said the glow does not dictate what the exact part is, but clearly notes that it is different — paleontologists can then investigate more closely using other methods.

Can They Fly Or Glide?

Apart from the animal’s leg and arm characteristics, the laser-initiated probe also showed astoundingly bird-like footpads as well as a shallow site of soft tissue fronting the elbow, known as the propatagium. The latter is important in bird flight, thus it is a piece of the puzzle of whether the Anchiornis could fly, glide, or neither.

“So it seems like Anchiornis had a somewhat more primitive wing than modern birds,” Kaye told Christian Science Monitor. “Maybe that type of wing was an intermediate stage in the evolution of the modern bird wing, or maybe it was a totally separate experiment in dinosaur flight.”

For the authors, the creature probably maintained some aerodynamic ability. Some scientists thought it could glide, while other disagreed due to its flight feathers not being well-suited for flight.

While the new findings may not necessarily change scientists’ current view of avian evolution, Kaye believes that they provided new observations from actual physical evidence. The next step for them, he shared, is to fly the lasers on a drone for new discoveries.

The findings were discussed Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications.

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