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Up to his elbows in emus (
Up to his elbows in emus (and rhinos, hippos and moose)
OU researcher peeks inside modern animals to help solve dinosaur mysteries
Tuesday, February 3, 2009 3:08 AM
BY KEVIN MAYHOOD THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
ATHENS, Ohio -- While many paleontologists work in a sterile world of rocks
and fossils, Larry Witmer's research tends to get a little, well, messy.
"He'll be dissecting a rhinoceros head, and 99 percent of people would walk
in and say this is a horror movie in progress," said Mathew Carrano, curator
of dinosaurs at the Smithsonian Institution.
"But Larry will be up to his elbows and grinning."
Witmer, a paleontology professor at Ohio University's College of Osteopathic
Medicine, studies how dinosaurs lived -- no easy task when the last of these
creatures died out about 65 million years ago.
That's why Witmer's team has adopted methods that use high-tech medical
techniques and equipment to scan the insides of skulls of both prehistoric
and modern animals.
"What kind of arrogance does it take to do a CT scan of a dinosaur and say
we know how it works?" Witmer said. "It's taken a long time and a team
approach to build up the knowledge to do this. ...
But it's the dinosaur research that gets Witmer revved up. And it's the
skulls that his team concentrates on.
They make replicas of dinosaur skulls and fill in any holes using
prehistoric bone, which carries grooves, ridges and nodes. These features
provide a map of where muscles attach and how blood flowed and the location
and size of the inner ears, brains and other organs.
They also use sophisticated software to make their animated models. These
are the same programs that movie companies used to create characters in T he
Lord of the Rings and Shrek.
Joe Daniel, an Ohio University doctoral student, works in Witmer's lab. In
the past four years, Daniel has built water chutes where he bombards the
skulls and fresh-cut heads of ostriches with sediment. Once the skulls are
filled, he freezes them.