Scientists hope to crack mystery surrounding dinosaur egg X-ray scanner in Calif. to be used on 65-million-year-old fossil

June 07, 1993|By Dan Stober | Dan Stober,Knight-Ridder News Service

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory are trying to crack the 65-million-year-old mystery of a dinosaur egg that never hatched.

Using sophisticated X-ray equipment more often aimed at bomb parts than ancient eggs, they are peering inside the fossilized egg that had been buried in China for millions of years.

Locked up in this stone, which is not much larger than a tall can of beer, is an embryo, a tiny dinosaur that grew for a while before dying inside its shell. Its little bones might convey some new information about dinosaurs near the end of their era.

Everyone knows the embryo is there, because one end of the egg was broken off at some point and a sliver of the embryo is visible.

But nobody wants to crack the egg to get to the embryo, not after it has survived for all these millenniums.

University of Notre Dame paleontologist Keith Rigby helped dig up the egg; the Beijing Museum of Natural History and the China University of Geosciences allowed him to take it home to Indiana.

There, it was X-rayed with the same kind of scanning equipment used to look at your knee after a skiing accident.

The result? Nothing, said Ken Sauer, the electrical engineer who tried the scanner.

The embryo is white, the rest of the egg brown, but to an X-ray, it all looks pretty much the same -- it's all rock and it all shows up as the same color.

What to do? Mr. Sauer knew Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory had some very advanced X-ray scanning equipment that generates three-dimensional computer images of great resolution.

How do you ship a dinosaur egg? UPS. Put it in an old cardboard box, wrap the egg in some bubble wrap and rest it on some foam popcorn. Ask for two-day delivery and insure it for $200,000.

That's what was done. The egg arrived intact in Livermore, but took a week to get there.

"We were wondering if it had hatched along the way or something," said Stephen Azevedo, a Lawrence Livermore electrical engineer who will participate in the egg-probe effort.

This is a first for Mr. Azevedo, whose knowledge of dinosaurs comes from "what I've watched on PBS and what my kids tell me."

In the spirit of informality that sent the egg to Livermore in a recycled box, Mr. Azevedo will prop it up inside an old paint can to take its baby portrait.

"Hopefully we can make the outer part of this egg transparent and see what's inside," he said. "We have the equipment. If anybody can do it, maybe we can."

The answer, after 65 million years, should come in a week or less.

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