Dinosaur Diversity

ICTP aids Spanish scientists in their endeavor to classify the many dinosaur species
Dinosaur Diversity

In collaboration with the Institut Català de Paleontologia (ICP) Miquel Crusafont in Spain, ICTP's Multidisciplinary Laboratory is examining the insides of 70-million-year-old dinosaur teeth without even grazing the surface. The teeth are just one piece of a larger body of work to ultimately determine how diverse the dinosaur population was shortly before a catastrophic event wiped it from the face of the Earth.

Using the Mlab advanced X-ray microCT system, ICTP scientists Federico Bernardini and Clément Zanolli scan the teeth and construct, using special algoritms, 3D images of both their outside and inside morphologies. This way, scientists can gather information about the structure of the teeth, thickness of their enamel and what kind of food the dinosaurs ate while preserving the tooth in its natural, rock-encrusted form.

"Such tiny teeth are sometimes too fragile to extract from the rock and the accurate 3D reconstruction obtained by the micro computed tomography allows for their systematic study and classification," says ICTP scientist Claudio Tuniz, who coordinates the Centre's X-ray imaging laboratory.
The leader of the research, Angel Galobart of ICP, has been studying and classifying dinosaur teeth, bones and tracks for nearly thirty years. He uses the distinguishing characteristics in teeth from dinosaurs of different species to establish classification systems, which he then uses to determine how diverse the dinosaur population was during the last 5 million years of its existence.



His current focus is in the southern part of the Pyrenees in Spain, where he and his colleagues have discovered a wide diversity within the last of the sauropods--the largest of the dinosaurs known for their long tales and necks--and ornithopods, a type of herbivore dinosaur. But the teeth he brought to ICTP this week are of a different sort: a group of carnivorous dinosaurs called theropods from which some of the birds of today evolved. In a way, theropod diversity is the last piece of the Pyrenees puzzle.

"It's incredibly important that we determine how diverse theropods were in this region," Galobart says. "We want to know about the health of the dinosaur population during this time span [between 70 and 66 million years ago]. If we get a great diversity of theropod dinosaurs, as we have seen with the other members of sauropods and ornithopods, this will mean that the ecological conditions were good enough for dinosaurs to continue living on Earth if the asteroid impact had not occurred."

"This kind of research allows us to see the entire terrestrial heritage in context and thus adds value to our own cultural heritage," Tuniz says.

The x-ray microCT laboratory was developed in collaboration with  Sincrotrone Trieste as parte of  the ICTP/Elettra EXACT Project funded by Regione Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Italy.

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