Cracking the secrets, not the eggs

The sun beats down on John Paul Jones’ back, but he keeps on digging. The wind stirs the miniature dust tornadoes swirling around his feet.

Somehow, the lack of vegetation makes the badlands seem even hotter. The longtime high school earth science and chemistry teacher stands up and scans the setting of the paleontological dig, his vacation spot. Clay rocks streaked with variegated sandstone dot the landscape and cut geometric shapes against the baby blue sky in the Missouri River Country of Southeast Montana.

He pushes his hat back and wipes the dripping sweat off his face before he looks down at the ground. He thinks he sees something.

He knows he sees something.

Jones hunches back down in the gully and keeps scraping away around an oval that looks like an egg. Other ovals begin to emerge… and the artifact looks like a clutch of four eggs, fused to a fossilized rock. But Jones shakes his head. He and his friends have already found what they believe to be fossilized bones, but a clutch of fossilized eggs? It’s so rare, that can’t be what they are.

So all three men start digging, scraping, mining in earnest. Ten eggs emerge that day, but what kind of eggs are they? The quest to determine the genus and species of those eggs has changed the course of Jones’ life.

More than 12 years have passed. Jones left his Florida home and his teaching position of 17 years to come to Mississippi State. After he completed his master’s in geology in 2008, he knew he liked working with the geosciences department faculty, especially professor John Mylroie and his wife, instructor Joan Mylroie. With the encouragement of associate professor Brenda Kirkland, Jones enrolled in MSU’s earth and atmospheric sciences doctoral program, which he completed in August.

Jones continues to visit the gully where he found the eggs, and he keeps finding more. Based on the Montana location where he found them, as well as the eggs’ size and shape, Jones hypothesizes that they’re hadrosaurs, some of the most common, widespread dinosaurs of the Upper Cretaceous period. The herbivorous, duck-billed dinosaurs had hollow crests on their skulls that may have been used to make warning sounds or mating calls. However, the question of which species of hadrosaur still looms before Jones.

Once he knew for sure that the treasure he found in 2002 was a clutch of dinosaur eggs, Jones vowed never to slice them. Though it’s generally regarded as the most reliable way to discover what kinds of embryos are inside, cutting up the eggs would destroy an artifact that’s been preserved for millions of years. “If you cut it, then you have a damaged egg,” he explains. “It’s just a rock that’s been sliced in half.”

With slicing out of the question, Jones turns to technology to give him the answers he’s looking for, and he recently accessed some of the most high-tech imaging equipment in the world. Because of geologist and assistant professor Rinat Gabitov’s connections to experts at Amgueddfa Cymru—National Museum Wales, the eggs went through the Diamond Light Source this summer. The extremely high resolution synchrotron CT scanner in Oxford, England, has generated 3D images from X-ray tomographic images, “virtual” slices.

“With the synchrotron technology, we’ll get the actual image that can make a model. We’re going to get a three-dimensional replica of the bones, and people will still be able to see the eggs,” Jones says.

The scanner’s resolution is so high and its scanning technique so involved, only very small structures can be scanned. In fact, the scan size is only about one-10th the diameter of human hair, so pinpointing the exact area of the four-egg clutch to scan is crucial. Thanks to Mississippi State’s partnership between Premier Imaging in Starkville and the university’s Institute for Imaging and Analytical Technologies (I2AT), Jones already had a pretty good idea about where to scan the fossilized clutch. In 2012, I2AT and Premier Imaging scanned the eggs with the LightSpeed VCT 64-Slice CT Scanner and generated more than 10,000 images by taking thousands of 2D X-rays around a single axis of the eggs and generating a 3D picture.

During the next 18 months, Jones examined each image. “I had to adjust the contrast and the brightness of the models to really zone in on what I was seeing,” he says. “One of the CT scans we did shows a definite and complete articulated embryo. The skull, pelvis, ribs, tail and perhaps legs are visible. I also found one egg was partially hollow. It has a disarticulated embryo in it, but you can still see some bones, but in the other two eggs, the resolution just wasn’t high enough.

“Because of that, we’ve taken them to Wales, and it’ll be the first time anyone’s ever identified an embryo using the synchrotron method.”

Because the National Museum Wales has imaging equipment, Jones didn’t have to reconstruct the images after the scans. Still, he is playing a major role in identifying the species of the eggs. Clear images of the skull and pelvis are necessary to figure it out, and Jones remains optimistic he will complete his task by the beginning of the new year. He emphasizes how excited he is to be the first scientist to have the chance to discover the genus and species of dinosaur eggs without slicing the fossil.

“There’s potential for the future, too, that we may be able to learn more about the physiology of the embryo. We may be able to make conclusions about how they move. A lot of paleontologists are going to be looking at what we’re able to do,” he says.

While the National Museum Wales has displayed the eggs in the United Kingdom, the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., has also agreed to display at least one of Jones’ egg fossils.

“People all over the world are interested in dinosaurs,” Jones says. “As technology gets better and better, our understanding of dinosaurs only gets better and better.”

By Leah Barbour, Photography by Megan Bean