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Canadian research sheds new light on dinosaurs

University of Regina researcher Mauricio Barbi holds a tendon from a duck-billed dinosaur that he plans to look at through a synchrotron.

Roy Antal/The Canadian Press

A University of Regina physics professor is using modern technology to examine some really old bones — and it all started with his child's fascination with dinosaurs.

Prof. Mauricio Barbi is using a synchrotron to take a deeper look inside fossils. The machine can look for traces of the original elements that were in the animal while it was alive.

"If I can measure not only the chemistry, but the concentration of elements in bones, different bones, and I can associate that to the environment, maybe I'm going to be able to tell about … the impact of environment on those animals," Prof. Barbi said recently.

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"Maybe I can look at how those concentrations of elements in the bone changed along the time.

"With the synchrotron we can look at these details hopefully and can understand our past, what happened in the past, because those things can happen again."

A synchrotron is a source of brilliant light that lets scientists study the microstructure and chemical properties of materials. The device at the Canadian Light Source centre at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon is one of the most powerful in the world. According to the centre's website, the machine can produce synchrotron light that is a million times brighter than sunlight.

It would make sense for a man with a background in high energy physics to use a synchrotron, but why use it to study dinosaur bones?

"That was, let's put it this way, an accident. The reason for that was my daughter. She loves paleontology. She loves dinosaurs," Prof. Barbi said as he proudly held up a drawing by Laura, 6, of bright green dinosaurs.

Camping trips to Dinosaur Provincial Park in southeastern Alberta and visits to the T. rex Discovery Centre in the community of Eastend, Sask., rekindled Prof. Barbi's own childhood love of the extinct creatures. His initial idea was to volunteer to dust off fossils.

But the head of paleontology for the Royal Saskatchewan Museum, Tim Tokaryk, wrote back suggesting they work together instead.

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That's when Prof. Barbi started thinking about using the synchrotron.

"The synchrotron has some advantages over the electron microscope because … the data that we collect is much cleaner than with an electron microscope," he explained.

"And we can scan a sample … in just one run using some specific synchrotron beams."

The machine can also help scientists look at the interaction between bones and the surrounding environment and how outside minerals ended up in the bone.

Prof. Barbi said it's also a lot less invasive because there's minimal alteration to the sample than with other techniques. That's in part because the fossils don't have to be cleaned. In fact, he wants them dirty.

"With the synchrotron we can actually look at those things with different eyes, without being so destructive."

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Some of the fossils he'll be looking at are from "Scotty," a Tyrannosaurus rex found in Saskatchewan in 1991. Scotty is one of the most complete T-rex skeletons ever found and one of the biggest, said museum director Harold Bryant, who is also a paleontologist.

Dr. Bryant said he didn't immediately think of using the synchrotron to examine the beast.

"But one thing you learn in this business is never to assume and that one of the really neat things about research is there's always that opportunity … to take you in directions that you never imagined," he said.

"It's often bringing new methods and new techniques to the study of materials that you've had around for a long time and it's just a new way to look at those items, in this case fossils."

Dr. Bryant said the work could increase the knowledge of Scotty, in particular, and fossils in general.

Prof. Barbi said the research is one of the first of its kind in the world. Only five papers have been published on the topic since 2009, although the synchrotron has been used to look at bones for at least 10 years, maybe more.

"It was more about imaging, having nice pictures, beautiful pictures that tell a lot," said Prof. Barbi.

"But not about chemistry, about the constitution of those bones, and … about an association between those elements in the bone and the environment.

"If I can prove that, that's going to be a big step forward."

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