Geology Professor Helps Illuminate ‘Chemical Ghosts’ of Fledgling Fossil

Who says big things don’t come in small packages?

Certainly not Phil Manning. The College of Charleston geology professor is a co-author on a new article in Nature Communications shedding light on the infancy of an ancient baby bird fossil that is about as small as a humming bird – a mere 45-millimeters long.

A synchrotron scan of the Enantiornithes fossil. (Photos provided)

The fossil, an Enantiornithes, a group of birds that went extinct along with the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous Period 66 million years ago, was found at the famous Las Hoyas limestone deposit in Spain about 10 years ago. But new high-tech scans of the rare hatchling specimen, which dates back approximately 125-129 million years, are providing new insights into understanding the growth patterns of extinct birds and other animals.

RELATED: Find out what fuels professor Phil Manning’s passion for all-things fossils.

Manning, who lead the synchrotron-based imaging research team, worked with a group of international researchers including Fabien Knoll, a research fellow at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom. Manning and his team conducted the synchrotron x-ray scans on the 4.5-centimeter long fossil at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford University, as well as at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ERSF) in France and the Diamond Light Source in the United Kingdom. The Stanford and Diamond lightsources helped to define the chemistry of the young bird, while the scans at ESRF were used to create a 3-D reconstruction of the internal microstructure of the creature’s bones.

The results yielded information previously never gleaned from a hatchling fossil.

“Because we could diagnose both the chemistry and structure of growth in this fossil, it shows that we are now capable of identifying growth stages in an extinct animal,” says Manning. “This means that some species that were described in the past, might no longer be valid, given they were based on juvenile forms that had yet to grow into their adult forms. Plus, if you don’t understand the growth of an animal, you do not understand that animal!”

The Enantiornithes fossil measures 4.5-centimeters in height.

The advent of synchrotron-based imaging techniques, says Manning, gives scientists the tools to now piece together the complex relationships between trace-metals and rare earth elements, which aids in the study of tissue types that comprise life, both past and present.

“The fragile paradigm that fossils merely represent shadows of past life is now being challenged, not with the promise of DNA or intact proteins, but from the fundamental building blocks of everything – elements,” says Manning. “The chemistry of life is now helping reveal previously unseen ‘chemical ghosts’ by shining some of the brightest light in the universe upon fossils.”

Featured video: Watch Professor Phil Manning talk about the power of synchrotron light in a 2016 TEDxCharleston talk.