German lab stages photo shoot for T. rex skull | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 20.06.2015
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German lab stages photo shoot for T. rex skull

Researchers in the German state of Bavaria have scanned the fossilized head of a T. rex using one of the world's biggest X-ray machines. Scientists are hoping the data will shed light on how the dinosaur's brain worked.

It's not easy to get inside the head of a 66-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus rex - especially when its fossilized remains are embedded in a block of sandstone. But that hasn't deterred researchers in the German city of Fürth. They carried out what is believed to be the highest-resolution CT scan ever conducted on a T. rex skull.

The procedure was performed at Fürth's Fraunhofer Institute, inside a device known as the XXL computerized tomography machine - the biggest of its type in the world. The CT technology was developed over the past decade and is mainly used to scan large industrial objects like cars and freight containers.

"We never thought we'd be scanning dinosaurs," Prof. Randolf Hanke, head of Fraunhofer's Development Center for X- Ray Technology, told DW.

Fraunhofer-Institut Computertomographie Tyrannosaurus rex

The CT scanner produced scores of images of the half-ton skull with varying color filters and perspectives

The dinosaur in question was unearthed in the US state of Montana in 2013 by Dutch researchers from the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden. The remains are believed to belong to a female T. rex that roamed what is now North America some 66.4 million years ago.

"Even in the US no one was capable of scanning the T. rex with this preciseness and with this resolution," Hanke said. "We're really proud that they trusted in us and they sent this complete skull to Fürth in Bavaria."

'A bit of magic'

It took a total of 45 hours to scan the hefty 690-kilogram (1,521-pound) cranium. The result: 1,500 separate exposures totaling more than 75 gigabytes in high-resolution images.

For paleontologist Anne Schulp, who was part of the Naturalis team that discovered the T. rex, it's exciting to finally get such a detailed picture of the "grand old lady."

"Of course, you know how it works, but it's still a bit of magic," he told DW. "We've got the bones excavated, but we can now start the digital excavation."

Schulp said he hopes the new data will provide insight into how the giant dinosaur lived. Apart from missing some claws, teeth, one leg and the end of the tail, the skeleton is in relatively good condition. Marks show she was bitten by another T. rex at the base of her skull, but Schulp said an inside look at the trauma can tell them "how the bones were damaged by this bite and how she recovered, because she clearly survived."

Anne Schulp

Schulp hopes the images will help tell the story of the giant dinosaur

The x-ray scans also make it possible to create 3D prints of the brain, and therefore to get an idea about how well developed a dinosaur's eyesight, balance or smell might have been.

CT an essential tool

CT has become an essential technology for paleontologists, said Schulp, because it essentially dissects the animal without breaking the fossil. Having an accurate idea of invisible details, like hidden fractures in the skull, will also prove handy when researchers begin the painstaking task of removing the fossil from the sandstone.

"We know where we have to be extra careful in removing the sand - grain by grain with a little needle," Schulp said.

The complete skeleton is expected to go on display in Leiden by the end of next year, when it'll become the only original T. rex on exhibit outside of the United States. In the meantime, Schulp and his team will be trawling through the new CT data.

What about the Triceratops?

Using CT technology to scan T. rex skulls is nothing new. Thomas R. Holz, Jr., a senior lecturer in vertebrate paleontology at the University of Maryland in the United States, said that although a number of specimens have been examined this way in the past, the new scans could provide useful comparisons.

Modell eines Triceratops mit Jungtier auf einem Sandstück

Triceratops was a herbivorous dinosaur, known for its trademark horns and frill

According to Holz, what is gleaned about this T.rex could be contrasted with older or younger specimens to get an idea about how smell, balance and sight change over an animal's lifetime. A next step, he said, could be conducting such scans of less "prestigious" dinosaurs, such as the herbivorous Triceratops.

"Eventually we could see the other dinosaurs treated with as much attention as the tyrant king," he said.

"Although triceratops has a more challenging shape to fit inside a CT scanner. With those great horns and the big frill, I can see that being a challenge."

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