X-ray scans of 'exceptional' dinosaur skeleton shed new light on 200mn-yo fossil (PHOTOS)

© P. Jayet / ESRF
The complete skeleton of a 200-million-year-old herbivorous dinosaur discovered in South Africa has been scanned by the world's most intense x-ray source, revealing its ancient story.

The fossil is the most complete skeleton ever to be found of the heterodontosaurus tucki – a small, plant-eating dinosaur that lived during the Early Jurassic period.

The skeleton was analyzed by the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF), located in Grenoble, France, which teamed up with the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg to reconstruct and study the dinosaur's skeleton.

The “exceptional specimen” was discovered in the rocks of the Karoo in a stream bed near a small town in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province by palaeontologist Billy de Klerk in 2005, according to an ESRF statement .

©  Billy de Klerk / ESRF

As the small, delicate skeleton was embedded in hard rock it was considered too risky to study using conventional means, as extraction could have caused irreparable damage to the ancient fossil.

Instead, the ESRF x-rays have allowed scientists to study the skull in intricate detail, non-invasively.

The scientists, led by Witwatersrand Professor Jonah Choiniere and the ESRF’s Dr. Vincent Fernandez, scanned the specimen over five days to understand how the dinosaur once ate, moved, and breathed.

“There’s still a lot we don’t know about early plant-eating dinosaurs and we need new specimens like this one, and new technology like the synchrotron, to fill in those gaps,” said Choiniere.

The x-ray images have been described as “amazing” by the team, and have already revealed “exciting” insights into the lifestyle of the small dinosaur, which typically measured between 1.18 m (3.9 ft) and 1.75 m (5.7 ft) in length, with a short body and long tail.

© P. Jayet / ESRF

From the scans, the researchers determined that this particular heterodontosaurus was a juvenile, as the skull bones weren't strongly joined together.

“We can also tell that we're really able to reconstruct the skull very, very well. On the first scans we can see the openings in the skull which are for the balance organs,” Choniere said.

“We can digitally reconstruct the balance organs of the animal and tell how it held it's head and how it interacted with its environment. That's the sort of data you just can't get by looking at a skull in 2d.”

© P. Jayet / ESRF

The ESRF images also showed bright white spots on the skull, which are metallic inclusions. The blotches had previously overshadowed the surrounding skull areas in earlier studies using technology in the university lab, but the new scans have revealed greater detail of the bone.

Full results of the research will take some time to complete, with the ESRF estimating it will be almost a year before all the data is collected and processed.