Confused Ornis has been quite busy today flying around harassing a team member, Bart, and learning about yeast at the Healthy Ageing exhibit. He has been laughing at all of these people who are so worried about ageing since, after all, he is 125 million years old!

Confused Ornis Lives!!!!

Confused Ornis, the Confuciusornis sanctus, has been brought back to life and has been harassing everyone here at the Royal Society! He keeps sitting on shoulders and climbing up backs! I have a bad feeling that he is going to escape and head off to other exhibits!!!

Chemical Ghosts…can be FREE!

We just published an eBook entitled ‘Chemical Ghosts’  on the iTunes store. Rather, I should say that Dr. Phil Manning has! If you are so inclined, the said volume can be downloaded for FREE onto your iPad and opened in your iBooks App. This book has  photographs, video and text, that explains much about our current research using synchrotron based imaging. Enjoy!

Chemical Ghosts App!

As part of the Palaeontology Research Group exhibit for the forthcoming Royal Society Summer Exhibition (Palimpsests, Palaeontology & Particle Physics), we have had our very own App designed! Yes, we have augmented some fossils into wonderful 3D reality, working in collaboration with Studio Liddell (based in Manchester).

You have to download the App from the iTunes Store (we hope it will be available by July 1st) you can see Confuciusornis (the 120 million year old first beaked bird) like you have never seen it before!

The target trigger for the App is the cartoon of Confuciusornis sat on its marble column (above right). After installing the App on your iPad, point the camera at the cartoon…and see what happens next! The front of the postcard is below:

The Exhibit that our team has bult will be on show at The Royal Society, Carlton House Terrace, London, from Tuesday July 3rd. Come and play pinball synchrotron at our exhibit and learn more about the chemical ghosts that lurk inside fossils.

Part 5 of Our Story….Reconstructing Confused Ornis

When we mapped the copper distribution in the fossil feathers of Confused Ornis, the Confuciusornis sanctus, it was almost identical to the copper that is bound in the modern pigments.  Thus, we can start to tease out what Confused Ornis may have looked like in life.  Such preservation marks this fossil as one of the most remarkable in the world and is certainly not a pigment of our imagination.   

Part 4 of Our Story….Zapping Fossils

The chemical ghost of Confuciusornis can slowly be sifted from the sands of time for the first time in 125 million years.  Using synchrotron light that is brighter than a million suns, we can carefully tease out the chemical inventory of this prehistoric bird without damaging a feather on its head.  When we map the distribution and concentration of each element in a fossil, we can start piece together clues on the biology and burial history of this ancient bird and other animals that died millions of years ago. We can bring to light the composition of feathers, skin, scales and other features that cannot be seen with the naked eye.  

Part 3 of Our Story…The Discovery

Confused Ornis, the slightly misguided Confuciusornis sanctus, and his now fossilized friends were discovered  in China over 150 million years after their downfall.  These fossils had to be carefully prepared, using no glues or chemicals, so we could study the chemistry preserved in these feathery finds.  Ultimately, we wanted to find out if the beautiful fossil of Confused Ornis preserved some remnant of pigments.  

Part 2 of Our Story….

The choice habitat for our early bird, Confuciusornis sanctus (or Confused Ornis for short), was not very wise.  Confused Ornis had not taken into account a volcano that was a little too close to the lake where he lived.  While living there, for the most part, was lovely, the smoke that drifted from the volcanoes contained many toxic gases.  Confused Ornis didn’t seem to mind the sulfurous smell that drifted from the volcano, in fact, he rather liked it.  So one day, while flying over the lake, he smelled a great cloud of rotten eggs coming towards him.  Instead of flying the other direction, as the other birds tried to do, Confused Ornis decided to fly right through the noxious cloud of gases and ash.  Unfortunately for him, this is how Confused Ornis met his untimely demise.  Fortunately for us, he was flying over a lake when he died and the lake sediments and ash preserved him in exquisite detail.

Part 1 of Our Story…

The story of our research begins125 million years ago.  On the shores of a freshwater lake lived a species of bird unlike any before it. What made this bird so unique was that it was the first beaked bird. All of his feathery ancestors had teeth in their mouths but he did not.  This toothless early bird is named Confuciusornis sanctus, or Confused Ornis for short.  Although, Confused Onis had feathers and a beak like his decedents would have millions of years later, he still had a few features that he inherited from his scaly ancestors, the dinosaurs.  One such noticeable feature was at the end of his wings, he had three fingers with claws.   Confused Ornis was a very happy bird, but he wasn’t very bright…and that got him into a very noxious situation….

No Slacking at SLAC

Much time has passed since we have seen the light of day. Apparently, it is still sunny outside…but walking back to our accommodation at 3am…the sun was conspicuously absent. We have managed to run many samples with a much-reduced beam team (a mere five of us), given funding has been rather tight. We are trying our best to squeeze as much time as possible from the next few days we have left at beamline 6-2 at SSRL.

The samples have been relatively easy to mount (above, Roy Wogelius and Phil Manning mount some fossils on the smaller experimental stage)…until we got to the largest fossil we have ever attempted to scan. A 60 pound (~30kg) monster of a fossil that needed mounting….on our experimental stage.


We had to place 40 pound counter weights on the back of the experimental stage to balance the accelerating fossil. Thankfully, our over-engineered stage coped with the inertia of our giant slab sliding moving to and fro in front of the 50 micron pinhole. This was a long….long…long scan, some 12 hours that our fossil gently moved from left to right in 50 micron steps, slowly giving-up its secrets locked in the sands (or in this case carbonate muds) of time.

All we can do now….is wait and work. As our latest fossil skips the light fantastic in a beam brighter than a million suns.

Will we ever see the light of day?

Working at a synchrotron usually involves being below ground level, surrounded by concrete, serenaded by the hum of energy and crushed by the absence of sleep. The 8-hour shifts often merge into 24-hour days whilst the timeless hum of relativistic electrons fills the air. Tomorrow, the University of Manchester team will start building another experiment on beamline 6-2 at the Stanford Synchrotron Lighsource. This is the only beamline on the planet where we can rapid scan GIANT objects (certainly in terms of synchrotron-based imaging), to tease their elemental signatures from their multi-million year old tombs. Many folks might think it was possible to undertake such work on simpler and more easily accessible equipment, such as the Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM)….however this would involve slicing-up your object, reducing spatial resolution and sensitivity (some elements you can only map with synchrotron light!), besides…you would need 48,000 hours of SEM work to achieve what we can do in a few hours on a synchrotron.

A cross-section of bone from one of the largest animals to walk on Earth….sauropod dinosaurs!

We will also start experiments later this year at the Diamond Lightsource, this being the UK’s newest synchrotron lightsource. This work will continue to build-upon our prior work on feathers at SSRL… because there are plenty of other fossil-types to be elementally plumbed!

To Tumblr, Love Pixel Union