|THE KEENE STATE COLLEGE MAGAZINE FOR ALUMNI AND FRIENDS||VOLUME XVIII NUMBER 1 Fall 2002|
Hatching a Mystery
Every day in his lab at James Madison University, paleoecologist Mark Reinhold '98 puts his hands on remnants of life that inhabited earth at least 65 million years ago.
Eight dinosaur eggs.
Fossilized in sandstone, the eggs look simply like rocks the size of cantaloupes, but, said Reinhold in a phone interview, "they put a vivid picture in my head."
The eggs were donated to JMU by a man from Williamsburg, Va., who discovered them in a crate of furniture from China.
As intriguing as that is, Reinhold is interested less in how the eggs arrived at JMU, where he began teaching geology in fall 2001, than in the mystery of their hatching. It's a mystery he and his students are determined to crack.
Another JMU scientist determined that they originated in China or Mongolia.
"There are a number of dinosaur egg deposits in China and Mongolia," said Reinhold, "and they all date to the Cretaceous Period, about 65 million to 140 million years ago, when that area was desert.
"We know they're definitely eggs from their crystalline structure," continued Reinhold, "which we determined by examining shell fragments with a scanning electron microscope."
But dinosaur eggs?
"Their size makes it clear." (Ostriches didn't exist then, of course.)
Hoping to find traces of embryos within the eggs, Reinhold and his students boldly took them to where perhaps no dino eggs have gone before: the local hospital MRI room.
One by one, the eggs were placed in the space where a person's head would usually go in the MRI machine.
Although they found no embryonic or bone evidence, said Reinhold, "we did find iron concretions and fragments of shell at the base of the eggs.
"We didn't even know for sure that they had been hatched until we did the scans and found shell fragments at the bottom and breakage in the top of the shell within the sediment." It's the sediment that formed around the eggs that gives them the look of wholeness, despite having hatched.
Now Reinhold and his students are trying to move from the general to the specific.
To find out what kind of dinosaur hatched from the eggs, they're examining thin sections with a polarizing microscope.
To recreate the environment the eggs hatched in, they're conducting oxygen and carbon isotope analysis, which will indicate the temperature of the location where the eggs were laid, maybe the rock formation they came from – possibly even what the parent ate for dinner. They're also looking for pollen in the sandstone on top of the eggs. Laboratory analysis could determine the age of the pollen, which would allow a closer estimate of the age of the eggs – and therefore the species of the parent.
The beauty of the eggs now lies in the practical science they enable his students to do, Reinhold explained.
"My students are as excited as I am," said Reinhold, who specializes in the study of mass extinction of species. "It'd be really handy if we could do a small-scale ecological reconstruction.
"I envision the parent approaching the nesting site, digging a nest into the sand. It's likely the parent didn't stick around after laying the eggs, because if she had, the shells would've been crushed into tiny pieces by nesting behavior after the babies hatched.
"After the baby dinosaurs crawled out, something happened. Possibly a sandstorm that further covered the eggs."
Reinhold and his students are thrilled to be doing the research on the dinosaur hatching. Millions of years later, the dinosaur eggs are spawning a brood of budding paleontologists.
Deborah Klenotic is assistant editor of Keene State Today.