What are you made of?

For immediate release ‐ June 18, 2024


Contact: Jon Pishney, 919.244.7913. Images available upon request

Using the handheld XRF on the Triceratops.

The Dueling Dinosaurs are exceptional. Both skeletons bear evidence of soft tissue preservation. But how much of the original material is there?

One technique we can apply to identify the presence of soft tissues such as skin on our specimen is handheld X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF). XRF is used to determine the chemical composition of materials. It does this by bombarding the specimen with energy and reading the fluoresced X-rays that come back. Each element on the periodic table has its own signature fluorescent x-ray energy, so we can use this to fingerprint the chemical composition of our specimens.

The Dueling Dinosaurs team borrowed a handheld XRF from a colleague at NC State University and got ready to zap our dinos. We first zapped our skin impressions to see if they were chemically different from the surrounding rock and if so, in what way. Our paleontologists were also interested in the difference between the chemical composition of plants preserved in the surrounding rock and the skin. Matrix (surrounding rock), skin impressions, plant impressions and geological features like nodules were all analyzed at multiple locations.

The handheld XRF gave estimated concentrations of each element as well as the spectra, the visual representation of all those fluoresced X-ray energies, for each spot analysis. Our paleontologists looked at these spectra to fact check the machine’s identification of each element as well as the suggested differences in elemental concentrations. The good news is we saw some exciting results. The bad news, we have even MORE questions! Welcome to science.

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