October 27, 2020

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HKU-codeveloped laser imaging informs early beak development

Confuciusornis was a crow-like fossil bird that lived in the Cretaceous roughly 120 million years ago. It was one of the first birds to evolve a beak. Early beak evolution remains understudied. Using an imaging technique called Laser-Stimulated Fluorescence, researchers at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) address this by revealing just how different the beak and jaw of Confuciusornis were compared to birds we see today.

Laser-Stimulated Fluorescence (LSF) is an imaging technique co-developed at HKU that involves shining a laser onto a target. It is well-known in palaeontology for making fossil bones and the soft tissues preserved alongside them glow-in-the-dark. LSF has revealed fine skin details and other previously-invisible soft tissue in a wide range of fossils, especially those of early birds and other feathered dinosaurs.

An HKU PhD student and his supervisor Research Assistant Professor (Vertebrate Palaeontology Laboratory, Division of Earth and Planetary Science & Department of Earth Sciences) led this study with an expert from the Foundation for Scientific Advancement (Arizona, USA) and colleagues at the Shandong Tianyu Museum of Nature (Pingyi, China).

Under LSF, the team revealed the fingernail-like ‘soft beak’ of Confuciusornis, a feature that covers the beak of every bird and is called the rhamphotheca. The example the team found in Confuciusornis was preserved detached from the bony part of the beak.

It was noted that fossilised rhamphothecae have been reported in fossil birds before, but no one has asked what they tell us about the earliest beaked birds.

The international research team reconstructed what the beak looked like in life, and used this to consolidate knowledge of the beak of Confucusornis across all known specimens. In highlighting that the rhamphotheca was easily-detachable and by performing the first test of jaw strength in a dinosaur-era bird, the team suggested that this early beaked bird was suited to eating soft foods.

Finally, the team highlight differences in how the beak is assembled to show that despite looking like living birds, the early beaks of Confuciusornis and its close relatives are fundamentally different structures to those seen in modern birds.

The team’s research has raised a lot of interesting questions going forward. Little is known about fossil rhamphothecae and there are plans to use LSF to study even more fossils to find more of these hidden gems.

The team lead is particularly interested in seeing whether beak attachment strength in living birds has any correlation with the overall strength of their jaw. This might help to better understand fossil birds. This study is only the first glimpse into this interesting and new line of study into early beaks, and, thus, there is a great scope.

Use of LSF in drones

OpenGov Asia earlier reported that HKU-codeveloped an autonomous ‘hunter drone’ designed to seek out targets at night using a scanning laser. The drone also uses Laser-Stimulated Fluorescence (LSF). The application of LSF to an aerial system is possible because of the laser’s ability to project over great distances with little loss in power.

The HKU Research Assistant Professor (Vertebrate Palaeontology Laboratory, Division of Earth & Planetary Science and Department of Earth Sciences) and his colleague from the Foundation for Scientific Advancement made this a reality by developing a fully autonomous LSF drone system.

Nicknamed ‘Laser Raptor’, the system is designed to more efficiently seek out fossils exposed on the surface in the field. Loaded with pre-programmed flight paths during the day, this prototype was launched at night in the Badlands of Arizona and Wyoming, USA to search for fossils.

Fluorescence is extremely sensitive to differences in mineral composition. Although Laser Raptor was designed to locate fossils, it is ready to seek out a whole range of fluorescent targets including minerals; for example, to study rare and unusual geology or in searches of mining materials like gemstones, certain organisms like scorpions, shellfish and cyanobacteria, and even archaeological artefacts and structures.

Asked about plans, the expert of the Foundation for Scientific Advancement stated that as members of HKU’s Laboratory of Space Research, the team is currently working to develop LSF applications for the study of geologic landscapes beyond Earth.