Dinosaur feathers and other oddly-discovered science

Several days ago, a truly awe-inspiring and beautiful scientific achievement was announced to the public: the discovery of the first piece of amber ever found to actually contain the preserved tissue from the tail of a dinosaur, including bones, flesh — and feathers.

Photo by R.C. McKellar of the Royal Saskatchewan Museum, via The Guardian.

Photo by R.C. McKellar of the Royal Saskatchewan Museum, via The Guardian.

We’ve known for quite some time that some dinosaurs are the ancestors of modern birds, and that those dinosaurs often had feathers; scientists have even, recently, found wingtips from that era preserved in amber that possessed similar feathers.  However, this is evidently the first specimen that clearly shows that it is from a non-avian dinosaur.  It is truly amazing that, after centuries of just seeing fossilized bones, we are able to get a glimpse of what a living dinosaur might have looked like.  More detail can be found in a National Geographic article about the find.

Something else that caught my eye, however, was the means by which this sample was discovered:

The amber sample—formally called DIP-V-15103 and nicknamed “Eva” in honor of paleobotanist Eva Koppelhus, the wife of co-author Philip Currie—comes from a mine in the Hukawng Valley in Kachin state, northern Myanmar. Amber from this region most likely contains the world’s largest variety of animal and plant life from the Cretaceous period.

It was one of more than a dozen amber samples with significant inclusions that were collected by Xing and his research team in 2015 at a well-known amber market in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin state. Two of the other samples contained the dinosaur-era bird wings published earlier this summer.

The majority of Burmese amber is used in jewelry and carvings, and the “Eva” sample had already been subject to shaping by the time it was collected by the researchers.

In short: the scientists found this incredibly rare and wonderful specimen by shopping in a what amounts to a jewelry market!

This got me thinking about how many stories exist of scientific discoveries being made in weird and fascinating ways, and I thought I’d share a few of those in this post.  Feel free to share others in the comments!

Coelacanth (1938).  This story many people are probably familiar with.  The first fossil specimens of coelacanths, an odd-looking armored fish, were discovered by the famed geologist Louis Agassiz in 1839, and it was widely thought that they had been extinct since the end of the Cretaceous period, some 66 million years ago.

A preserved specimen of coelecanth, caught in 1974, via Wikipedia.

A preserved specimen of coelecanth, caught in 1974, via Wikipedia.

This would change, and surprise the scientific community, thanks to the sharp eyes of Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, the curator of a natural history museum in the South African town of East London.  The clever Latimer had made an arrangement with local fishermen to be allowed to inspect their newest catches for interesting specimens, and on December 23, 1938, Latimer received what probably seemed like another routine call.  She went down to the docks and was picking through the pile of fish when she spotted a strange blue fin sticking out.  It was a coelacanth, and though Latimer did not recognize it herself, she knew it was strange enough to investigate further.  She wrote to a local chemistry professor, J.L.B. Smith, with the following description:

I had the most queer-looking specimen brought to notice yesterday. The Captain of the trawler told me about it so I immediately set off to see the specimen which I had removed to our Taxidermist as soon as I could. I however have drawn a very rough sketch, and am in hopes that you may be able to assist me in classing it.

It was trawled off the Chalumna coast at about 40 fathoms.

It is coated in heavy scales, almost armor-like, the fins resemble limbs, and are scaled right up to a fringe of filament. The spinous dorsal has tiny white spines down each filament. Note drawing inked in red.

I would be so pleased if you could let me know what you think, though I know just how difficult it is from a description of this kind.

Smith recognized almost immediately from the sketch that the coelacanth represented a form thought to be extinct for years, and he and Latimer worked hard to preserve, mount and photograph the specimen.  You can read the whole story, and the correspondence between the two, at NOVA.

The species was named Latimeria chalumnae, after Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, and the find was truly a rare one: in spite of an extensive search, a second specimen of the deep-sea fish would not be found until 1952.

Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer and her discovery, via Wikimedia.

Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer and her discovery, via Wikimedia.

The giant squid (1874).  This is another story of an unknown deep-sea creature being discovered, but in more dramatic circumstances!  For centuries, mariners had told stories of giant cephalopods — think “The Kraken” — but science had never had an opportunity to study a complete specimen up close.  In 1861, the French gunboat Alecton snagged a giant squid at sea, but the carcass split apart while they roped it and they were left with a rotting tail section.  The giant squid became an acknowledged, but unstudied, mystery of the ocean.

Artist’s impression of the Alecton incident, from an 1884 book Sea Monsters Unmasked.

Artist’s impression of the Alecton incident, from an 1884 book Sea Monsters Unmasked.

This would change around the 25th of October, 1874.  A fisherman by the named of Theophilus Picot was practicing his trade in Conception Bay, Newfoundland, when he noticed what appeared to be a strange, living creature longer than his boat floating listlessly at the surface.  He pulled alongside the creature and — and I will never understand this — poked it with his boathook.  The creature, a giant squid, flared to life, wrapped its tentacles around the boat and slowly started pulling it underwater.  The panicked Picot hacked away at one of the creature’s tentacles with his axe, severing the tentacle and causing the squid to retreat in a spray of ink.

Stuck with a giant squid tentacle, Picot brought it to a pair of local naturalists, Reverend Moses Harvey and Mr. Alexander Murray, who wrote letters to Professor Agassiz (mentioned earlier) about the discovery.

Woodcut of the tentacle, as sent by Harvey.

Woodcut of the tentacle, as sent by Harvey.

This tentacle would be just the “tip of the squid,” to coin a phrase: it turns out that giant squid are subject to mass beachings roughly every 90 years, for reasons still not well-understood.  More specimens appeared in Newfoundland in very short order, and Moses Harvey became the resident squid-collector, even draping one specimen over his bath for people to examine!

Photograph of the Logia Bay squid; hard to get a sense of the shape in this configuration!

Photograph of the Logia Bay squid; hard to get a sense of the shape in this configuration!

For those interested in reading more details, see my original lengthy blog post on the subject, in which I include the original descriptions by Harvey and Murray.

Glacier theory (1837).  One of the commonalities between the previous three stories is the important role that locals played in the discoveries.  The locals were collectors of the specimens in these cases, but there is at least one case where a local with no scientific experience put forth his own theory and sparked a small scientific revolution!

The revolution in question began with the origin of strange misplaced boulders (now known as erratics) that were observed in Alpine valleys.  Erratics are massive pieces of rock that have a different composition than the ground around them.  By the 1800s, these erratics were commonly thought by scientists to have been deposited by a massive flood, possibly the Great Flood of the Bible.  The idea of a flood also seemed to explain the scratches on exposed rocks, called striations, which were considered carved by the torrential flow of water.

Alpine erratics perched on the top of a ridge known as a moraine.  Via NASA's Earth Observatory site.

Alpine erratics perched on the top of a ridge known as a moraine. Via NASA’s Earth Observatory site.

However, the people who had lived all their lives on and in the shadow of the Alps had a very different view.  They knew that the glaciers could grow and recede somewhat over time, and it seemed likely that they had once extended much further down. The striations in the valleys matched the striations that could be seen under the receding glaciers themselves, leaving little doubt as to their cause. They were not the work of a rapid flood, but of the slow inexorable motion of glaciers over much longer periods of time.

In 1815, a hunter and carpenter named Jean-Pierre Perraudin (1767–1858) described this idea to a visiting naturalist,  Jean de Charpentier.  Charpentier was initially dismissive of the idea, but several years later Perraudin spoke with another naturalist, Ignace Venetz, and Venetz convinced Charpentier of the plausibility of Perraudin’s hypothesis.

The idea had bigger implications than boulders, however.  Geological surveys by Venetz and Charpentier of the Alps and larger regions convinced them that the glaciers had once in fact extended over much of Switzerland, suggesting in turn that the Earth had once experience a period of extreme cold: an “Ice Age.”

A geological map of the Pyrenees, by Charpentier.

A geological map of the Pyrenees, by Charpentier.


This idea was met with much skepticism, as the existing theory of the Earth at the time was that it has once been a hot, molten world and was slowly cooling off; the idea of a period of cooling did not seem to fit.  (It was only later, when radioactivity was discovered, that the ‘inexorable cooling’ idea would be completely dismissed.) The Ice Age theory was further championed by none other than the twice aforementioned Louis Agassiz, however. He presented his ideas in an 1837 lecture and, despite much resistance, those ideas eventually were accepted.

It should be noted that a number of scientists had previously suggested the role of glaciers in erratics, but it seems that it was the observations and persistence of Perraudin, a humble but astute hunter and carpenter, that really sparked interest in the idea and the acceptance of the Ice Age theory!

(This part was a bit of a challenge to write, as different sources seem to have slightly different takes on the history. My main sources were the NASA Earth Observatory and a post by David Bressan at Scientific American.)

X-rays (1895).  There are many stories of serendipitious discoveries, but one of the most famous is the discovery of X-rays, which are now a fundamental tool for imaging not only the human body but the universe itself.

Before X-rays, however, it was another set of rays that were of intense interest to physicists.  In 1869, German physicist Johann Hittorf was experimenting with what was known at the time as a Crookes tube, a vacuum-sealed tube with a separated electrical cathode and anode, as illustrated below.

A cathode ray tube. The cathode rays impinged upon the broad end of the tube.  From G.W.C. Kaye, X-rays (1918, Longmans, Green and Co., London, 3rd ed.).

A cathode ray tube. The cathode rays impinged upon the broad end of the tube. From G.W.C. Kaye, X-rays (1918, Longmans, Green and Co., London, 3rd ed.).

He found that something was emanating from the cathode and impinging on the glass on the opposite end of the tube, causing it to fluoresce.  Without a better word for this something at the time, they became known as cathode rays, though today we know them to be electrons.  Many researchers of the era were investigating the properties of these rays.

One such researcher was Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, who was experimenting with a variety of cathode ray tubes.  He was using a piece of cardboard to shield his apparatus from damage, but surprisingly noticed that a nearby fluorescent screen was glowing, even though no cathode rays could be hitting it. Additional experiments suggested to him that a new type of ray was responsible, a ray which could pass easily through many substances which would block light and other sorts of rays.  Röntgen called them “X-rays” — with “X” for “unknown quantity” — though they would later also be known as “Röntgen rays.”  Two weeks after his discovery, he took the first image of the human body with X-rays, using his wife’s hand as a subject.  She reportedly reacted to the image, shown below, by saying “I have seen my death!”


Radioactivity (1896).  Just as experiments with cathode rays led to a quite unexpected discovery in X-rays, so experiments with X-rays led to yet another!  After Röntgen’s revelation, many researchers turned their attention to understanding the properties of the radiation he had discovered.  One such researcher was Parisian Henri Becquerel, who did research into fluorescence and phosphorescence, i.e. materials that “glow in the dark.”

Becquerel wondered if such materials might also give off X-rays.  He wrapped photographic plates in black paper to protect them from exposure to ordinary light, then  then placed a sample of uranium potassium sulfate on the plate in the sun. Becquerel hoped to see the uranium fluoresce X-rays, which would develop the photographic film, and at first it seemed that all went as expected — the film was developed.

However, bad weather forced him to put his experiments on hold.  He put his remaining undeveloped photographic film into a drawer with the uranium sulfate still on top of it.  When he came back to the experiments, he developed these plates anyway, simply to see if some lingering phosphorescence had occurred. To his great surprise, the plates had been darkened even more than they had been in the sun!  Evidently something else, inherent to the material, was developing the plates.  Because of the presence of uranium, Becquerel referred to this new emanation as “uranic rays.”  Today we broadly speak of it as radioactivity!

Becquerel also used his radioactivity to take images of a sort. Below is an image of two pieces of uranium that had been placed on a photographic film; in the lower image, an iron cross had been placed between the film and the uranium.  The metal cross partially absorbed the “uranic rays” and caused the film to be developed less.



These are just a few stories of significant scientific discoveries being made in odd or very unconventional ways.  If you have a similar favorite story, feel free to share in the comments!

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2 Responses to Dinosaur feathers and other oddly-discovered science

  1. kaleberg says:

    Natural History magazine had an article in the 90s about one of its curators and her relationship with the Fulton Fish Market in NYC. She’d check in with her informants, merchants at the market, who knew of her interest in unusual specimens. Fish are usually sold by culinary type, so there are often a lot of species sold under the same name. A naturalist, or even just someone who knows his or her fish, can find all sorts of new things.

    For other discoveries, there was penicillin, discovered when a mold destroyed a bacterial culture. There were the Brooklyn gynecologists who discovered prostaglandins when treating a patient who felt pain develop after having sex. I think the full story has Frederick the Great paying some scientist to measure the prostate glands of moles, but I might be confusing this with another story. There was the starvation therapy for diabetes developed after doctors noticed diabetic patients improving during the Paris famine in the Franco-Prussian War.

    Would you count Rutherford’s discovery of the atomic nucleus based on what seemed to be random particle detection? There was Oersted and the compass needle that was deflected by an electric current. Benedictus discovered safety glass by accident when he knocked over a flask that had been accidentally coated with a celluloid compound. Of course, Parkes discovered celluloid by accident some time earlier.

    Of course, a lot of these discoveries relied on someone following up. Rutherford could have just worked on a better detector. Oersted could have moved the compass. Fleming could have thrown out the mess and started over. An awful lot of great science was enabled by slack in the system, basically waste. Without a lackadaisical attitude towards resources, we would all be much poorer today.

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