31 Jan '17, 6pm
How Lasers Are Revealing Hidden Evolutionary Clues in Ancient Bird Fossils
Four years ago, paleontologist Amanda Falk was sitting in a grad student’s office in Beijing when she saw something extraordinary. She’d been using a combination of fluorescent lasers, blocking filters, and a camera to photograph a sedimentary slab containing a fossilized Confuciusornis , a crow-size bird from the Early Cretaceous in Northeastern China. The region is famous for preserving traces of soft tissue from birds and dinosaurs, and the flattened skeleton showed vague, dark patches around the bones: the remains of feathers and the faint impressions of wings. Falk and her colleagues suspected the fossil might be hiding other secrets—perhaps even organic residue invisible to the naked eye. But taking photos with lasers is a delicate process, so Falk couldn't see the results until she sat down to go through them digitally.