A key objective for this research is to understand the processes that lead to soft-tissue preservation in the fossil record. A suite of cutting edge analytical techniques are generating big advances in the understanding of such exceptional preservation.

A great deal of research has been published on fossil “lagerstatten”. Most of this, however, has been concentrated on fossils preserved in marine, lacustrine and marginal marine settings and is not really relevant for terrestrial environments, such as that of the Hell Creek Formation (USA).

Given all the special conditions required for dinosaur preservation it not surprising that dinosaur fossils are rare! Given the existence of rare soft-tissue preservation, however, we have the opportunity to investigate key processes. This research programme is seeking to address how you optimise dinosaur preservation. We are investigating the fundamental ancient geochemical processes that caused the soft parts of this dinosaur to be mineralised and preserve unique fossils.

Combining Synchrotron Rapid-Scanning X-ray Fluorescence (SRS-XRF) with Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR) we are able to undertake non-destructive mapping of the chemical composition within discrete biological structures preserved in fossils, often not visible to the naked eye. Results from multi-spectral mapping then allow ‘hotspots’ to be selected for detailed spectroscopic analysis (Extended X-ray Absorption Fine Structure, EXAFS) or for pinpoint destructive analysis by Pyrolysis Gas Chromatography Mass Spectrometry (Py-GCMS). This approach has enormous potential in terms of spatially mapping both molecular and chemo-physiological pathways. Identification of specific pathways within particular biological structures also provides us with important clues regarding function. The determination of key biosynthetic pathways will help resolve the complex evolutionary relationships between chordates, whose affinities and evolutionary relationships are much debated.

Mapping the chemistry of a fossil in situ can place constraints on mass transfer between the enclosing matrix and the preserved organism(s), and therefore aid in distinguishing taphonomic processes from original chemical zonation remnant within the fossils themselves.

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