Dino evolution research a huge step forward
Ground-breaking research involving two James Cook University researchers is set to fundamentally transform how scientists are able to view prehistoric life.
JCU PhD candidate Dr Tegan Beveridge and Head of Earth and Environmental Science Professor Eric Roberts were part of an international team that have been able to narrow the timeline margin of error for dinosaur and plant fossils found in western North America from millions of years to thousands.
Their work was focused on precise age dating of some of the most important dinosaur burial sites from Canada to Mexico, near the end of the age of dinosaurs.
“This region is right up there in being one of the most fossil abundant and famous places to study dinosaurs,” Prof Roberts said.
“The problem that has limited some of the work that’s been done previously has been that people haven’t known how these fossils compare in terms of age and timing.”
Dr Beveridge said the new discovery was akin to solving a murder mystery.
“We've been able to put together a much more refined timeline that palaeontologists can use to investigate which animals lived at the same time and how they relate to each other,” she said.
“This is the first time there’s been a unified framework where we can hang all of these dinosaurs on, so people can start to look at evolutionary and ecological patterns.”
The research, which also involved Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Macalester College and Canada’s Royal Tyrrell Museum, involved Dr Beveridge travelling to the United States to help analyse fossil samples found in the Western Interior Basin.
The method used in the study involved measuring the ratios of uranium and lead isotopes in microscopic crystals deposited in volcanic ash beds associated with the fossil deposits.
“Previously, the error on ages we were able to provide for these fossils was between one million and 150,000 years,” Prof Roberts said.
“What we’ve been able to achieve is a greatly reduced error margin of plus or minus 10,000 to 30,000 years.”
Prof Roberts said the implications for the team’s discovery were hugely significant for the paleontological and palaeobotanical community.
“Researchers will be able to go back in and look at these records of plants, vertebrates and dinosaurs and really start to unravel their evolutionary relationship,” he said.
“We’ll be able to explore their links between climate, the environment and the ecosystem because we can now tie these fossils to very precise ages.”
Dr Beveridge added that the new research could also have implications for understanding modern ecosystems, including how they might adapt to current environmental challenges.
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