Dinosaur Fossils: Inspiring Jurassic Park and helping us predict Earth's future

Tiny Matters

This week on Tiny Matters, we’re talking about dinosaurs: the ancient beasts that died off 65 million years ago but whose remains still captivate us today. Fossils are helping scientists piece together how dinos and other extinct creatures looked and behaved. That info isn’t just inspiring movies like Jurassic Park—it’s helping researchers predict Earth’s future and could even lead to more sustainable tech.

Transcript of this Episode

Sam Jones: People love dinosaurs. I feel like that’s not a controversial statement. How many kids say they want to be paleontologists one day specifically because they want to dig up dinosaurs? 

Deboki Chakravarti: Yeah, I mean, they’re giant and they’re strange, what’s not to love? 

Sam: Agreed. 

Deboki: And the entertainment industry has capitalized on our obsession with dinosaurs. When the original Jurassic Park was released in June, 1993, people lost their minds. It brought in over a billion dollars at the box office and won 3 Oscars. 

Sam: For those of you who haven’t seen Jurassic Park or don’t remember the plot, here’s the gist: an old rich guy creates a theme park of cloned dinosaurs and he calls it Jurassic Park. It’s located on a fictional island called Isla Nublar off the coast of Costa Rica. After a dinosaur handler is killed by a velociraptor, the park's investors demand that experts visit the park to make sure it’s actually safe. Enter paleontologist Dr. Alan Grant, paleobotanist Dr. Ellie Sattler, and mathematician Ian Malcolm played by none other than Jeff Goldblum [“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should”] 

Deboki: Not so surprisingly, shortly after this crew arrives, things go downhill fast [t-rex roar]. So, why are we bringing all of this up? 

Sam: Because we like Jurassic Park. 

Deboki: Haha yes, that, but also because Jurassic Park wouldn’t exist if there weren’t people out there trying to understand our planet’s past. 

Sam: Scientists around the world are continuing to piece together what dinosaurs and other ancient creatures were like, and what they’re learning is not only informing movies like Jurassic Park it’s telling us about the future of our planet. And could help us create more sustainable tech.

​​Sam: Welcome to the FIRST episode of Tiny Matters, a science podcast about things small in size but big in impact. I’m your host, Sam Jones, and I’m joined by my co-host Deboki Chakravarti. Hi Deboki! 

Deboki: Hello! Today on the show, we’re talking about dinosaurs: the ancient beasts that died off 65 million years ago, but whose remains still captivate us today. 

So let’s start off with the proof that dinosaurs existed: dinosaur fossils. We called up paleontologist Caitlin Colleary at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, and started off by asking her, “what is a fossil?”

Caitlin Colleary: A fossil could be anything from a full skeleton of a dinosaur to footprints that they left behind. Also things like coprolites, which are fossilized poop. And you find a lot of things like fossilized plants as well. So really all a fossil is, is evidence of past life. I'm really interested in how things can even start being preserved, basically like how they don't decay completely and how they're even around long enough to become a fossil.

Sam: And, as it turns out, it’s not all that easy for something to become a fossil. Fossils are often found in sedimentary rock, which forms when sand, clay, other types of dirt, and organic debris like plants and leaves settle at the bottom of a lake or river and are then compressed over millions of years. 

This muddy environment is super low in oxygen, and the little oxygen present is used up quickly. These are ideal conditions for a fossil to form, because microorganisms and other decomposers that could destroy a fossil need oxygen to break stuff down. No oxygen, no breakdown.  

Caitlin: There's a lot of the times you'll find really beautifully preserved skeletons. And that means that it was covered up or preserved really quickly. Other times you just find bone fragments and those potentially have been through a lot more to get preserved. But there's a huge, huge range and a lot of variation between the quality of fossils that you find and that determines how quickly it gets preserved.

Deboki: Caitlin studies what happens to the molecules in fossils—things like DNA and proteins. Scientists have found evidence of proteins in dinosaur fossils that date back 195 million years and DNA in dino fossils thought to be 75 million years old. I mean, how wild is that?! 

Sam: It’s pretty mind boggling. Stuff from dino cells over a hundred million years later? It’s just so cool, and it’s only possible because of a field of research called molecular taphonomy. Taphonomy is the study of how an organism decays and becomes a fossil and molecular taphonomy is the study of that on a molecular scale. There’s a really cool molecular taphonomy study Caitlin is a part of that involves a cow that has decayed over the past two decades. It was started by Kay Behrensmeyer at Smithsonian.

Caitlin: She's basically like the queen of taphonomy and she did this project where she had a cow that died at one of her field sites in Amboseli, Kenya, and she collected one bone from this cow every year for 20 years. That's the longest study like that I know exists. And that's how she came up with these weathering stages to look at how morphology of bones breakdown.

Caitlin: And I wanted to see how the proteins were breaking down and compare them to that morphology stage loss. And something really interesting that we found is that collagen sticks around for a long time. So even like the oldest, most degraded bone in our study, we were still finding collagen. And that's something that people really didn't think would preserve for very long. So one of the ideas is that there's just so much a bit in bone that chances of it preserving a little bit, that we could actually still find on longer timescales seems to be a lot more likely.

Caitlin: The idea that these things are actually preserving—it's another layer of biological information that we can get from extinct animals that we really didn't think we would ever be able to access.

Deboki: Ok, so let’s get into the nitty gritty a bit—how do you get information from a fossil? To start off, you take a tiny piece of the fossil, grind it up and put it in a solution that will pull out the proteins or whatever else you’re looking for. 

Sam: With the bones of cow that has been dead for 20 years maybe that’s no big deal, but Caitlin told us that with dinos this type of analysis is still a little controversial.

Cailtin: So destructive analyses are a little bit, uh, contentious still in paleontology because we don't have a ton of fossil material. Sometimes you have a really big, beautiful skeleton and you don't really want to destroy it. So I use ribs a lot. Ribs don't have a lot of morphological information. People don't really care about them as much. So that's an easy one to get people to let you destroy. 

Deboki: Huh, that’s really funny. Alright, ribs are OK.

Sam: Apparently. Ok so you have a solution with, say, different proteins in it. But you still have to figure out what those proteins are. 

Caitlin: If you're looking for things like proteins, you're basically doing proteomics on fossils and it's a little bit more complicated than modern proteomics because a lot of things have happened to the fossil, obviously in the millions of years that it's been around, but it's essentially the same thing. 

Sam: The proteome of a fossil is just all of the proteins you’re able to pull out of it. To create that proteome, Caitlin’s using mass spectrometry—a technique that identifies molecules based on their molecular weight, structure, and chemical properties like their charge. 

Caitlin: It's been the last couple of decades really that people have started incorporating these techniques into paleontological studies because for a long time, people just didn't think that these things would fossilize because it's just, it seems so crazy that they could actually preserve for millions of years. 

Caitlin: One of the things that actually got me into molecular studies is that this really is like these little tiny things that nobody noticed for a really long time, you know, like you can look at a fossil and you wouldn't see them, you wouldn't know that they were there. You wouldn't know that they could give you all of this information about the animal that you're looking at. So it’s really exciting because I think it will progress more as technology improves and who knows what this field will be like in 50 years. 

Deboki: Some of you who are listening might be thinking, okay it’s pretty cool that we can get proteins from a dino rib, but is there a greater importance to this? Why should I care about the molecules that stick around in fossils?  

Sam: Right. And one answer is: if you consider these molecules collectively, say, if you look at a bunch of fossils—dinosaur and otherwise—that lived at different times over the course of Earth’s history and compare them, you get a window into the past.

Caitlin: We can get a much better idea about ecosystems, animals that were living together and we can look back hundreds of millions of years and get an idea of how much our planet has changed. Like the animals that have made it through, you know, things like climate change. 

Deboki: Annnd there it is.

Sam: Ding ding ding.

Deboki: Figuring out how animals made it through things like climate change.

Sam: Climate change is not just a thing of the present—our Earth has gone through many, many changes in climate over billions of years. But, based on what research has shown, it happened much, much more slowly in the past, because there weren’t humans burning fossil fuels and heating things up.

Deboki: Scientists today are trying to get a picture of what’s to come by studying how climate change impacted species in the past—species like dinosaurs. 

Sam: Emma Dunne, a paleobiologist at University of Birmingham in England, is one of those scientists. She’s asking, “How did some species survive for hundreds of millions of years while others couldn’t adapt to changes in climate and went extinct?”

Emma Dunne: My research very broadly looks at how biodiversity of animals changes across millions and millions of years of geological time. And this biodiversity is how many different types of organisms there were, how many there were, where they were and what they were doing, how they're interacting, that kind of stuff. When we think of biodiversity today we think of lots of different types of animals, and that’s what I'm looking at in the past. 

Emma: And I use the fossil record, even though it is rather patchy and incomplete, to try and reconstruct this diversity and see how things like climate and environmental change impacted their biodiversity in the hopes of getting a greater insight into what climate change might happen or might do to the future biodiversity.

Deboki: In other words, data from the past can help scientists better predict the future. Here’s an example of that. The Permian–Triassic extinction event, also known as The Great Dying, happened around 250 million years ago, not long before dinosaurs came on the scene. It was called “The Great Dying” for a reason: scientists think that 95% of species on Earth were completely wiped out. 

Sam: The culprit: catastrophic volcanic eruptions that released massive amounts of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Researchers have hypothesized that, if humans don’t cut back on greenhouse gas emissions /fast/, by the year 2100 warming in the upper parts of our ocean will approach around 20 percent of warming in the late Permian, and by the year 2300 it will reach between 35 and 50 percent. Which would likely mean a lot of species going extinct.

Deboki: This is only one study—there are plenty of other studies where scientists are looking to the past to make predictions about the future, and because fossils are being discovered all the time researchers are learning more and more. 

Emma: I don't think a week goes by when there's not a new discovery of a new fossil for a dinosaur. So we're learning more about what they looked like. Um, particularly in terms of their skeleton, where they lived, how old they were, like, we still don't even know what the first dinosaur was. Every new discovery tells us a little bit more. So it's like creating this never ending puzzle. 

Emma: It's like looking into a world that we don't know anything about. It's almost like reading a novel in one way, like some sort of escapism. And it's just, it's just interesting in itself, but in a more practical sense, knowing about what happened in the past, particularly in terms of how extinction events happened or what caused them or how they ended up can really help us understand what's currently going on. And if we look back in the past, not even too far in the past, quite close to the present day, we can get an idea of what was happening before humans came on the scene. Much of our current climate change is driven by human activities. When we look in the past, humans weren't there, so we can get an idea of what happens when we're not adding to the problem and at least try to mitigate some of those things hopefully, or that is the aim, the big picture. 

Sam: I love what Emma said about how learning about dinosaurs and our ancient planet is kind of like reading a novel. 

Deboki: Same. Reading about dinosaurs and their evolution sometimes feels like reading about science fiction or something. But then you remember that they’re real, and that how they evolved is still relevant today.

Sam: It really makes you wonder what species will survive human-driven climate change. How we humans might adapt or, alternatively, cease to exist.

Deboki: I guess we’re really getting into our own mortality on this one. 

Sam: Haha yes, I guess so, that was not the plan but here we are. 

Deboki: So I’m going to switch gears a bit and bring things back to Jurassic Park.

Sam: Please do.  

Deboki: Okay, so, we know that fossils can a.) tell us that dinosaurs and other ancient creatures are real and b.) tell us how these creatures fared as the climate changed, but how did filmmakers know how to depict what dinos looked like, beyond what their skeleton showed? How did they know what colors some of them might have been? 

Sam: To get answers to those questions, I reached out to Vinod Saranathan, a physicist and evolutionary biologist at Yale-NUS College in Singapore, who—since we chatted—relocated to Krea University in India.

Vinod Saranathan: Sam, can I put on my MythBuster hat and then tackle the question head on? Birds are living dinosaurs. They’re descendants of a group of dinosaurs that evolved from these guys called theropods. So they’re meat-eating, bipedal dinosaurs. 

Deboki: So what you’re saying is that Jurassic Park lied to us because I don’t remember seeing any feathery dinosaurs in that movie.

Sam: I mean having featherless dinosaurs was just one of the many creative liberties they took in that movie. But if it makes you feel better, I did read that in the new movie Jurassic World: Dominion, which comes out in June there will be feathers. Not like chicken feathers but the director has come forward to say that they’re going to try to make these dinosaurs look more like paleontologists think they did.  

Deboki: That’s actually really cool. 

Sam: And if you see the trailer, they’re still terrifying, some little feathers are not making T rex less scary.

Deboki: But I assume you didn’t call up Vinod to fact-check Jurassic Park.

Sam: I did not. Although that actually would have been a lot of fun. I reached out to Vinod because he studies something called evolutionary photonics. Photonics is the science of light waves—how light flows through a material. With evolutionary photonics researchers are studying how different animals like insects and birds i.e. modern dinosaurs create structures that mold the flow of light and create what we see as color.

Deboki: You’re talking about structures in the feathers, right?

Sam: Yes. So let’s talk about feathers for a second. The colors in the feathers of a bird are caused by a couple different things. One of those things is pigment—like melanin—and the other is the structure of the feather—how the protein in it called keratin refracts light. The cool thing about structural color is that it’s super resistant to fading because keratin is tough. A pigment like melanin, on the other hand, will break down more easily. 

Deboki: Okay, some of this is ringing a bell. Structural coloration is what’s behind iridescence, right? That kind of shimmery, pearly look of butterfly wings and peacock feathers or even soap bubbles. 

Sam: Exactly. And so the color of a feather can be caused by pigment, structure, or a combo of the two. And with that knowledge, Vinod and collaborators are trying to figure out what ancient creatures looked like.

Vinod: We take a feather of an ancient or more basal dinosaur, we chop them open and we compare what we see with the more recent and living bird.

Sam: So maybe you see a structure in a modern day bird feather that looks super similar to a structure in the feather of an ancient dinosaur. Based on that comparison, you can draw some conclusions about what colors the dino might have been.

Deboki: At the top of the episode you teased the idea that some of this research could influence technology. And we’re talking about these tiny structures and light refraction and I’m assuming this has to be it. 

Sam: Yes. Vinod wants to understand how different animals, like birds, evolved to create these structures, because they could be really important in improving tech, which I promise I’ll explain in a second. So Vinod and his colleagues recently discovered a really unique three-dimensional keratin crystal structure in the feathers of blue-winged leafbirds.

Deboki: Ok, looking that bird up. They look like a kind of finch or something. But a really vibrant yellowish green with a beautiful teal or maybe even aqua streak on its wing. 

Sam: The structure behind that color is apparently quite complicated. 

Vinod: It's easily the most mind bendingly complex crystal structure known to humans. 

Sam: These crystal structures are called single gyroids. A gyroid shape is kind of hard to describe but to me it sort of looks like a pinwheel, but way more elaborate, and it has all of these special properties that create those brilliant colors. And what Vinod realized was that they’re really efficient at using light. 

Deboki: Ok, what does that mean exactly?

Sam: So a big issue with a lot of technologies is that light escapes, which means wasted energy. These single gyroids are really good at trapping light. So integrating them into tech could have a big impact.

Vinod: For example, we can make fiber optics with perhaps even near zero losses that could function the same way the bird feathers work, where basically the light will have no opportunity to escape from the fiber. If you design the cladding, the cover, the coating in such a way that the light is held within. 

The amazing thing is that birds have evolved a way to do exactly that. And that's what is really exciting about studying how nature does structure coloration, because frankly, it’s very humbling to me that, you know, birds have gone there and done that 50 million years ago. 

Sam: Vinod thinks these single gyroids could not only improve the fiber optics used for the internet, phones and television, but also be used to make really efficient solar cells, fuel cells, or even digital displays. Imagine a TV where colors would look just as good from every angle. Just like the bird feathers. 

So now, scientists like Vinod are trying to figure out how birds create these structures.

Vinod: The idea is not just mimic the structure, but mimic the process that gives rise to the structure. So we're talking full biomimicry rather than bio-inspiration. This is a million or even a billion dollar unsolved question. How do you get at these color-producing structures using synthetic self-assembly? And the answer is really challenging. Unfortunately, using current techniques in chemical engineering and biotechnology there is no way to easily make color-producing nanostructures or structural colors in the visible regime. 

Deboki: It does seem like there’s a ton of potential if they can figure out how to replicate these structures in the lab. 

Sam: Absolutely. Just another example of how understanding the little things—a nanostructure in a bird’s wing—could affect big things, like the tech industry. What a dinosaur rollercoaster. I think I’m going to need to watch Jurassic Park tonight and not get too hung up on the fact that the T rex doesn’t have feathers. 

Deboki: I don’t think that’s possible for me at this point. 

Sam: So… I think that’s a wrap. 

Deboki: Yeah, that’s a wrap on the first full episode of Tiny Matters. 

Sam: And we will have a brand new episode ready for you in two weeks. And every two weeks after that. 

Deboki: Thanks for listening to Tiny Matters, a production of the American Chemical Society, a non-profit scientific organization based in Washington, DC. Tiny Matters is hosted by me, Deboki Chakravarti, and Sam Jones who is also our executive producer and audio editor.

Sam: This week’s script was edited by George Zaidan and was fact-checked by Michelle Boucher. The Tiny Matters theme and episode sound design are by Michael Simonelli, and our artwork was created by Derek Bressler. Thanks so much to Caitlin Colleary, Emma Dunne, and Vinod Saranathan for chatting with us. 

Deboki: If you haven’t rated and reviewed us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Audible, or wherever else you listen, please do! 

Sam: Click that plus sign, that follow button—that is how people learn about us, how we can continue to make episodes...

Deboki: And how we can keep exploring the tiny things that matter, and sharing what we learn with you. 

Sam: We’ll see you next time.


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