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Carestream reveals dinosaur's secrets

Rochester Business Journal
October 10, 2008
Seventy-seven million years ago, give or take a few million years, a dinosaur living in an area we call Montana died.

That dinosaur-since named Leonardo after a 1916 graffito immortalizing the love of Leonard Webb for Geneva Jordan that was observed near his final resting place-belatedly found fame last month as millions tuned in to watch his story in a Discovery Channel broadcast that turned out to be the cable outlet's most watched program ever.

"Secrets of the Dinosaur Mummy" aired long-buried secrets uncovered with the help of Carestream Health Inc.'s non-destructive testing unit. The local company's team used digital imaging technology normally used to probe industrial equipment and pipeline welds to get under the dinosaur's skin.

In probing Leonardo, who long ago turned to sandstone, the Carestream unit was a huge help, said Joseph Iacuzzo, who heads the Leonardo Project, an organization formed to support the study and exhibition of the fossilized dinosaur.

"That kind of technology would have been absolutely beyond out reach otherwise," he said.

Steven Mango, worldwide technology manager of Carestream's NDT Solutions Division, traveled to Malta, Mont., in 2006 and to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Houston facility this year to perform tests on Leonardo.

"It was absolutely inspiring," Mango said. "When I first walked into the negative air chamber (where the dinosaur was stored) I was struck with overwhelming emotions. Then Joe (Iacuzzo) said to go ahead, that it was alright to touch him. To just imagine what it must have been like, how long ago he lived. I was awestricken."

Considering how long Leonardo, whose remains were discovered by an amateur fossil hunter in 2000, lay buried, the array of specific details of his short and rather unlucky life the Carestream team was able help paleontologists uncover is startling.

When he died, Leonardo had been having a particularly bad day. A plant eater roughly 21 feet long, he most recently had dined on pine needles and branches, which he had ground up with a mouthful of some 200 teeth, dental equipment one researcher refers to as the cretaceous era's equivalent of a Cuisinart.

Remains of more than two dozen plant species were found in his stomach. The contents of Leonardo's stomach have helped scientists pin down the range of flora extant at the time, Iacuzzo said.

Leonardo was 3 or 4 years old when he died. He had attained roughly two-thirds the length of a fully grown member of his species, Brachylophosaurus canadensis-a kind of hadrosaur or duck-billed dinosaur.

Cause of death

Just prior to his demise, a predator, something big enough to take a big bite out of an animal 21 feet long, had taken a chunk out of Leonardo. Scientists learned the extent of the damage from examining images of its ribs, Iacuzzo said. But the bite did not kill the dinosaur.

Cretaceous-era Montana was a far different place than it is now, Iacuzzo noted. Leonardo lived in relatively flat coastal plain on the edge of a huge shallow inland sea. That sea-some 180 miles wide and 400 feet deep-stretched from Alaska to the Gulf of Mexico. The Rocky Mountains had yet to rise and the climate in the region was hotter and wetter, making Leonardo's habitat something like a modern-day mangrove swamp.

Having survived the predator's attack, Leonardo got caught in a flood, which buried him in a layer of sediment. Paleontologists studying the dinosaur's remains concluded the predator's attack left Leonardo in fairly sad shape, but did not do him in. The flood, which ensured his remains' survival, was what killed him, Iacuzzo said.

Part of the reason scientists have been able to learn as much as they have about Leonardo is that before he was fossilized, Leonardo was mummified. That meant that not only was his skeleton preserved as rock, but also 90 percent of his skin and many of his internal organs. This makes him the most complete dinosaur fossil ever found.

Leonardo ended up as a mummy for probably two reasons, Iacuzzo said: The young dinosaur's quick burial in sediment hermetically sealed his corpse, keeping oxygen away from his tissues. Another and more important reason was that chemicals called aldehydes-later used by ancient Egyptian morticians to mummify their kings-were naturally present in the waters that engulfed Leonardo. That aldehydes were the chief agent of the hadrosaur's mummification was deduced by Arthur Aufderheide, an expert in mummy analysis who, with the aid of the Carestream imaging equipment, examined the fossilized remains of Leonardo's skin.

Martin Graen, worldwide general manager at Carestream's NDT unit, whose first contact with Leonardo came in Houston shortly before the Discovery Channel started filming, finds the encounter hard to sum up.

"I talk about him like he's a living being," Graen said. "I mean here's something that's 77 million years old. You could see the bite marks. I started feeling bad for him. I wished I could have been there to help him."

Carestream's role

The equipment used to probe Leonardo's fossilized innards-Kodak Industrex Digital Systems-comes in a relatively portable 140-pound package. The machines are not unlike medical X-ray equipment, Mango said. But because they are used on non-living subjects, Industrex systems can employ far more powerful beams of X-rays. To penetrate Leonardo's sandstone hide and innards, beams were used that were so powerful that Mango, Iacuzzo and the paleontologists had to view images well separated and shielded from the examining site.

The Carestream NDT unit first agreed to probe Leonardo in 2005, Graen said. The Leonardo Project had approached a non-destructive testing products distributor, which in turn introduced paleontologists to Carestream. The paleontologists first sent a sample of a fossil similarly encased in sandstone to Carestream in Rochester for testing to see what the company's digital X-ray equipment could do.

It is not unusual for prospective customers and others to give the unit a sample to see what its equipment can do, Graen said. An automaker, for example, last year gave the company an L-shaped bracket from a car door to see how well X-ray equipment could test a weld. Currently the company is X-raying seeds of various types for the Cornell Agriculture and Food Technology Park Inc. in Geneva to see if X-ray images can tell how viable seeds are.

"Nothing's been as unique as Leonardo," Graen said.

The Carestream NDT division, which preformed tests on Leonardo free of charge, saw the chance to work on the unique dinosaur specimen as advantageous to itself and the scientists, he said. The company was rolling out its first digital equipment, and the challenges presented in probing the dense sandstone would help Carestream learn the new machines' limits and capabilities. Besides, Graen added, the chance to play an instrumental role in a major scientific study would offer unparalleled marketing advantages.

"We had one of the scientists from the dig at a trade show last year. People were crowding around the booth. Everybody's interested in dinosaurs," Graen said.

The Discovery Channel special also has not hurt, he added.

Iacuzzo, meanwhile, hopes to someday to see more non-invasive testing probe even more deeply into Leonardo's secrets, perhaps locating and imaging other internal organs besides the stomach, such as Leonardo's heart.

Carestream would consider doing other scans of other fossil specimens but has for now gone as far as it can with Leonardo, Mango said. There had been discussion of arranging further tests with a heavy-duty CT scanner and even with a linear accelerator, he said. But the linear accelerator idea did not work out and the Leonardo Project scotched a CT scan, which would have required turning the dinosaur fossil on its head, as too likely to damage the irreplaceable specimen. Further X-ray probes of Leonardo would have to wait for a future generation of equipment, Mango said.

Leonardo, meanwhile, can rest secure in his unique place in the annals of paleontology. He is enshrined not only in the Discovery Channel special but in a current exhibit at Houston Museum of Natural Science, which features Carestream's X-ray images alongside the dinosaur.

After the Houston exhibit wraps up, Leonardo is slated to star as the centerpiece of Montana's Great Plains Dinosaur Museum. And in a statistic so far unchallenged, he is certified by Guinness World Records as the most complete reticulated dinosaur fossil ever unearthed.

wastor@rbj.net / 585-546-8303

10/10/2008 (C) Rochester Business Journal


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