Feature Story | 9-May-2024

Is it a bird or a dinosaur? The Mona Lisa of fossils at the Teylers Museum in Netherlands secretly visits the UK’s synchrotron

The rare fossil was brought to Diamond so scientists could discover more about its features, including the color of its feathers

Diamond Light Source

The feathered limbs, sharp teeth and claws of the oldest known bird-like dinosaurs, the Archaeopteryx have fascinated naturalists and palaeontologists including Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin who propelled the species to fame especially following publication of his theory of evolution.  

So, when a precious 150-million-year-old Ostromia crassipes fossil - formerly known as a specimen of Archaeopteryx  - arrived at Diamond Light Source in a high security operation, it naturally caused a great deal of excitement. The rare fossil, which is usually housed at the renowned Teylers Museum in the Netherlands, was brought to Diamond so scientists could discover more about its features, including the colour of its feathers. The specimen was studied on the I18 beamline, using a microfocus X-ray available at the UK’s leading science facility. 

The Archaeopteryx is called the ‘first true bird’ and is about the same size as a magpie at around 20 inches from head to tail. This ‘Ostromia’ fossil shows the knee region, part of the wing, claws, ribs, lower stomach bones, and feather imprints.  These were examined at Diamond in more detail than ever before. This is the first time this specific fossil has been studied in such a way. 

Collection manager, Tim de Zeeuw, described it as the Mona Lisa of the museum’s fossil collection. He explained that the Jurassic fossil was discovered at Jachenhausen, a village in southeastern Germany in 1855. The fossil was secretly brought to the UK by a special transport team and was kept under lock and key around the clock, even while on the beamline at Diamond.  

The new research undertaken will be the subject of a forthcoming paper and is a collaboration between the University of Utrecht and Teylers Museum. Lead author, Edgar Mulder, a master's student at the university explained that it was a bit of dream come true to get time to examine the fossil at Diamond and the team worked through the night to get as much information as possible.  

When this fossil was discovered, it was thought to be a pterosaur until 1970 when it was identified as an Archaeopteryx. Professor Dr Anne S. Schulp at the University of Utrecht, said: “In 2017, it was concluded that this sample was more closely related to the Chinese Anchiornis and given the name Ostromia. This new research at Diamond is helping to further determine its features. It is particularly important as the Archaeopteryx and other ‘early birds’ play a key role in the origin of birds.”. 

Edgar Mulder adds “This is really exciting work as the Ostromia has the claws and teeth of a dinosaur but the feathers of a bird, which places this species "in between” dinosaurs and birds. We hope the results will reveal the pattern in the feathers and identification of the melanin could suggest the colour of the feathers. Similarly, if the feathers and claws have been preserved and keratin is within the sheath on the bony claw, this will show that like humans, it had a terminal phalange, which grows on top a specialised nail made from keratin.”  

Analysis was conducted using a combination of X-ray fluorescence imaging and absorption spectroscopy at Diamond’s microfocus spectroscopy beamline I18.  Principal Beamline Scientist on I18, Konstantin Ignatyev added: “This beamline has a super bright energy-tuneable X-ray microbeam that can be focused down to 2 micron, that can scan the widest range of elements on the periodic table. This allows the study elemental and chemical composition of various samples at very high spatial resolution. In this case, it allowed us to look in detail at the chemical environment of sulphur at different locations on the fossil as well as pinpoint the distribution and concentration of other elements from phosphor to zinc. Looking at the sulphur chemistry in this sample, for example, might reveal chemical signals of degradation products of soft tissues like tissues, feathers, skin, keratin, etc. Which will reveal more detail about this fossil than what has been possible to see before.”    


For further information: please contact Diamond Communications: Lorna Campbell +44 7836 625999 or Isabelle Boscaro-Clarke +44 1235 778130   Diamond Light Source: www.diamond.ac.uk  Twitter: @DiamondLightSou    

Research Team: 
Edgar Mulder – master’s student at the University of Utrecht – e.a.mulder@students.uu.nl / e.a.mulder@uu.nl  
Professor Dr Anne S. Schulp (he/him) – professor at the University of Utrecht, researcher at Leiden Naturalis Biodiversity Centre, honorary position at Teylers Museum – anne.schulp@naturalis.nl  
Tim de Zeeuw – collection manager science collections – tzeeuw@teylersmuseum.nl  
Sifra Bijl - PhD student – sifra.bijl@ebc.uu.se  

Diamond Light Source: Principal Beamline Scientist – Konstantin Ignatyev, konstantin.ignatyev@diamond.ac.uk 

I18 has been utilised for a large range of scientific studies including: geochemistry and space mineralogy; biochemistry in tumour and cancer treatment; analysis of agrochemicals; environmental and heritage research; catalysis structure and mechanistic pathways; ultrafast pump-probe XAS. 

Diamond Light Source provides industrial and academic user communities with access to state-of-the-art analytical tools to enable world-changing science. Shaped like a huge ring, it works like a giant microscope, accelerating electrons to near light speeds, to produce a light 10 billion times brighter than the sun, which is then directed off into 34 laboratories known as ‘beamlines’. In addition to these, Diamond offers access to several integrated laboratories including the world-class Electron Bio-imaging Centre (eBIC) and the Electron Physical Science Imaging Centre (ePSIC).    

Diamond serves as an agent of change, addressing 21st century challenges such as disease, clean energy, food security and more. Since operations started, more than 16,000 researchers from both academia and industry have used Diamond to conduct experiments, with the support of approximately 760 world-class staff. Almost 12,000 scientific articles have been published by our users and scientists.    

Funded by the UK Government through the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), and by Wellcome, Diamond is one of the most advanced scientific facilities in the world, and its pioneering capabilities are helping to keep the UK at the forefront of scientific research.    

Diamond was set-up as an independent not for profit company through a joint venture, between the UKRI’s Science and Technology Facilities Council and one of the world’s largest biomedical charities, the Wellcome Trust - each respectively owning 86% and 14% of the shareholding.    

Teylers Museum in the Netherlands, is an art, natural history, and science museum located in Haarlem, Netherlands. Established in 1778, it is the oldest museum in the Netherlands and was founded as a centre for contemporary art and science. The museum’s collection includes over 214,000 objects that span various disciplines. Utrecht University is a public research university in Utrecht, Netherlands. Established in 1636, it is one of the oldest universities in the Netherlands. In 2022, it had an enrolment of 37,675 students and employed 8,584 faculty members and staff. 

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