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‘Bisti Beast’ gets his head examined

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The story 74 million years in the making continues.

Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory recently conducted a neutron imaging scan to expose the inner structures of the skull from the tyrannosaur dinosaur nicknamed Bisti Beast.

The dinosaur is one of the meat-eating tyrannosaurs unique to the state, which was found in the Bisti Badlands of northwest New Mexico in 1996.

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The results are in and were released at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science on Tuesday.

“One of the things we could do is peer into the skull,” said Thomas Williamson, curator of Paleontology at NMMHS. “The scan enabled us to do it without causing physical damage. This is the first of its kind and it’s exciting to see the results.”

The fossil skull of the Bisti Beast at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science recently was imaged by Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Williamson said the results helped the team determine the skull’s sinus and cranial structure.

Initial viewing of the CT slices showed preservation of un-erupted teeth, the brain cavity, internal structure in some bones.

“We can look at what the brain would have been like,” Williamson says. “And with the data, we can see how the brains of this dinosaur have changed over time. We’re tracking the evolution of this species.”

In November, the Bisti Beast skull was sent to Los Alamos and the project began.

“Normally, we look at a variety of thick, dense objects at Los Alamos for defense programs, but the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science was interested in imaging a very large fossil to learn about what’s inside,” said Ron Nelson, of the laboratory’s Experimental Physical Sciences Division. “It turns out that high energy neutrons are an interesting and unique way to image something of this size.”

The difference between a regular X-ray and a neutron imaging is vast.

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Williamson says with a traditional X-ray, it only shows the surface.

“Neutrons interact with matter differently than X-rays,” he said. “We’re able to see the internal anatomy of the skull. This has been done with the highest resolution and gives us a different perspective.”

The team’s study illuminates the Bisti Beast’s place in the evolutionary tree that culminates in the Tyrannosaurus rex.

“The CT scans help us figure out how the different species with the T. rex family related to each other and how they evolved,” Williamson said. “It (Bisti Beast) was living alongside species more closely related to T. rex, the biggest and most derived tyrannosaur of all, which lived about 66 million years ago. (Bisti Beast) lived almost 10 million years before T. rex, but it also was a surviving member of a lineage that retained many of the primitive features from even farther back closer to when tyrannosaurs underwent their transition to bone-crushing.”

The Bisti Beast skull is on display permanently at the museum.

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