We can’t really clone dinosaurs, let alone create hybrids by combining the scariest bits of the nastiest beasts. Modern technology can, however, provide new and exciting insights into the prehistoric world. In fact, these days, paleontology is less pick and shovel and more hi-tech analysis.

Deadly, huge or just downright weird?

In the last 20 years scientists have discovered more dinosaurs than in the previous two centuries. Here are just a few recent discoveries:

Saurophaganax, not Allosaurus, was Jurassic North America’s biggest predator.

● Giant Cretaceous meat-eaters like Carcharodontosaurus and Mapusaurus were bigger and more powerful than Tyrannosaurus rex. 

Velociraptor had cousins as small as a seagull, others as big as a house.

Majungasaurus was known to eat its own kind.  

Pliosaurus – a 15-metre marine reptile with a huge head full of razor sharp teeth, bit four times harder than Tyrannosaurus rex. 

Gigantoraptor – looked like a giant turkey. It had huge, powerful legs, feathers, clawed hands and a great snapping beak-like mouth with no teeth. It ate anything – berries, eggs and even small dinosaurs. 

Hatzegopteryx – the biggest pterosaur. It hunted on the ground using its beak to grab food, like a heron. It was as tall as Tyrannosaurus rex when standing upright. 

Gigantoraptor PaleoNeolitic, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Sinornithosaurus – covered in feathers, but flew more like a flying squirrel than a golden eagle. Some scientists even think that it had a venomous bite!

Bradycneme – raptor-like creature. It used hearing to locate prey like an owl. Enlarged middle-ear cavities, near the eardrum, helped it to detect low-frequency sounds.

Nothronychus – this bizarre two-legged, long-necked dinosaur was related to meat eaters like Allosaurus and Tyrannosaurus rex, but this dinosaur was a vegetarian. It had huge sloth-like claws and a bony toothless beak. 

Argentinosaurus – biggest ever dinosaur (that we know of), up to 40 metres long. It was a passive herbivore, and weighed up to 100 tonnes. A newly-hatched baby weighed just 5 kg, but it grew 40 kg a day, reaching full size in 40 years.

Comparison of Dinosaurs size by Zachi Evenor, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Paleontologist, Phil Manning, University of Manchester:

‘Technology has turned paleontologists from fossil hunters into forensic scientists. I call myself a geo-biologist, these days. I’m part of a team that uses Stanford University’s synchrotron to analyse dinosaur fossils. A synchrotron is a particle accelerator that spins electrons at nearly the speed of light. Its bright X‑ray beam is a hundred million times brighter than the Sun’s rays. The beam is so bright that with it, you can see inside atoms. For us, the synchrotron maps where the copper is in the fossil, and also the elements surrounding it. If the copper is surrounded by sulphur, it’s likely to be inorganic – leached into the specimen from its environment. [If it’s] surrounded by oxygen or nitrogen, it’s more likely to be organic, from the original animal.

When there’s a break in an animal’s body, enzymes rush to that bone to heal it. This chemical process leaves traces in the bone that can be uncovered millions of years later. We’ve discovered that Allosaurus bones had remarkable healing properties. Also that it’s possible to display pigment in Archaeopteryx feathers and that there was a link between dinosaurs and early birds. My team includes a geochemist, physicists, geologists and a computational zoologist. There are thousands of fossil dinosaurs in museums waiting to show us their secrets.’

Research center at Stanford University by Brad Plummer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Paleontologist, Phillip Currie, University of Alberta:

‘You can put a dinosaur leg bone inside a hip socket and get some sort of an idea how the animal might have moved. But dinosaur’s bones are big and heavy. If you put CT scan data into a computer, then modelling software gives you an idea of how the animal moved and how fast; how its brain worked, and where on the body the blood vessels and muscles grew.

I can’t see anyone finding the fossil of a hybrid dinosaur, like the terrifying Indominus rex in ‘Jurassic World’, though. Hybrids have to be closely related species, say a buffalo and a cow. You might get something in-between, but usually, the hybrid can’t reproduce and the strain doesn’t live on.

We’ve only discovered a tiny proportion of the animals that lived on Earth back then. We’ve found around 1,000 different species, which sounds a lot, but you have to remember that today alone there are 10,000 species of birds, 6,000 types of reptiles and 4,000 mammals. Dinosaurs lived for many millions of years. There would have been many, many more than just 1,000 species around.’

Model of Psittacosaurus Based on Skin and Pigmentation Patterns on SMF R 4970 Left lateral view (A), posterior view (B), right lateral view (C), and anterior view (D). Robert Nicholls, CC BY 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

New technology makes it possible for paleontologists to find out new things about dinosaurs and the prehistoric past. 

● Digital visualisation technology helps scientists restore dinosaur skulls.

● 3D laser scans can help experts understand how extinct animals moved. 

● With finite element analysis, paleontologists can work out how extinct animals lived and hunted. For example, we know that sabre-toothed cats didn’t use their huge sabres to get a grip on their larger prey; the teeth were too fragile to support the cat’s weight.  

● With CT scans scientists can see through iron carbonite and the plaster casting to map fossils.

Endocast (above) and transparent skulls with endocasts in place (below) based on µCT scans of the basal sauropodomorph Massospondylus carinatus - Sereno PC, Wilson JA, Witmer LM, Whitlock JA, Maga A, et al. "Structural Extremes in a Cretaceous Dinosaur". PLoS ONE. 2, 11, e1230. 2007. DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0001230, CC BY 2.5 , via Wikimedia Commons

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Written by the AQUILA team