Chomp or be Chomped, Part II
Lisa Schultz is bursting at the seams with excitement when we walk into Siemens Training and Development Center in Cary with our box of fossils. Since early morning, she’s been in this room testing the CT-scanner’s capabilities with a material that is quite a bit different than your average human body—a rock. Lisa’s “patient” is not just any rock, but a rather pretty hand-sized specimen with veins of crystalline quartz that her daughter found outside a couple of days before our visit. “Try this out mom,” she told her as she handed it over.I met Lisa and the other incredible folks at Seimens this past March, when I came to “Take Your Kids to Work Day” to talk about new research on dinosaur fossils (my day job). After my presentation, Lisa pulled me aside and told me about a new dual energy scanner that the Center had, with a resolution good enough to tease out cellular layers within a single blood vessel. “We should try it on your fossils,” she said.
By the time we arrive, Lisa’s three steps ahead of us. Along with co-conspirator Ron Matthes, she’s already figured out how to set the CT scanner’s parameters to detect differences in the density of the rock’s mineral components and she’s still in high gear. She’s been able to do this because she’s been at the controls since early morning with an infectious enthusiasm. In fact, she’s so stoked she barely slept a wink the night before.
Like a proud parent, a smile spreads across her face as she shows off the images on the computer monitor in front of her. I lean over for a closer look. To me, the transparent glowing images look eerily like ghosts, spinning unaided in empty digital space. Maybe it’s a rock only a mother could love… but still, I can’t tear my eyes away from the screen.
The next step is to try our luck with our magic rocks—the fossils we brought from the Museum’s collections including our “chomped” fossil phyotosaur femur. Gently, we unpack them from the box and arrange them on the convex table poised near the center of the scanner. The table looks a bit like a diving board jutting out of a robotic donut, but is designed to function just the opposite. We are told that this one can hold up to several hundred pounds without sagging and it’s a good thing too as most fossils are remarkably heavy.
Less than a minute later, the ghostly images of our phytosaur femur flash on the monitors, success!!
Greedily, we crowd around Lisa now as she furiously adjusts the image on the screen, changing planes of view, contrast, transparency, and adjusting the software parameters to make contrasts between the different densities within the fossil bone itself. Although we are all bantering back and forth in the room, there is an undeniably sharp tension as we wait for the images to be resolved… what will we see?
Finally, being the type-A that I am, I can stand being on the sidelines no more. I sit down at the desk and ask permission to fiddle with the imagery myself. I want to “fly through” the bone, looking at each cross-section, examining the 3D structure of the bite marks for imbedded teeth and other oddities. After a quick tutorial, I am on it. We document three punctures in the phytosaur femur made by something with a hearty appetite, but unfortunately no imbedded teeth to identify the culprit. One of these holes connects to an internal chamber within the bone and looks suspiciously like a flesh-eating beetle burrow, but it will take much closer examination to be sure.
Can you spot two of the bite marks on the surface scan of the phytosaur femur?
Finally we realize the afternoon has gotten away from us. We’ve been at it for several hours and it is quitting time. We now have our hard proof that the king of chomp had taken a hit by something with an equally powerful bite. Molds of the bite marks might help us get the right mug shot for our perpetrator, but for now we’ve got a lot of work to do with our 3D images.
Coming sadly back down to Earth, we pack up our bones, grab our hard drives, and shake hands with the amazing folks at Siemens. Its been an awesome day for all of us and it’s clear that we all want to up the ante and try something else. “How about if we bring in a 3-foot long, 300 lb., duck-bill dinosaur skull next time,” I let slip. “No problem,” says Ron, and the mood in the room lifts again. Until next time…
A BIG thanks to the staff at Siemens for generously donating their time and resources to help us study our bitten phytosaur skeleton!! We can now say without a doubt that Siemens scanners are trés cool. Stop by the Paleo Lab on the 3rd floor of the new Nature Research Center to see the scans for yourself.