Gorgosaurus means 'fierce lizard'. To get an idea of just how fierce, you can read about how it ate its own kind, or (if you haven't yet) you can watch Walking with Dinosaurs, where a pack of hungry 'Gorgos' terrorises a herd of Pachyrhinosaurs during their annual migration along the Western coast of North America 70 million years ago.

 Gorgosaurus Dinosaur 2014 07 08
A Gorgosaurus skeleton displayed at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis in Indiana, US. Image: Phil Manning

The dinosaur's fierce physique also made an appearance recently at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition, which featured a reconstruction of a Gorgosaurus skeleton (until recently housed in the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis in Indiana). This 7.3-metre relative of Tyrannosaurus rex is thought to be new species of Gorgosaur, slightly more robust than previous specimens found in Canada. But there's one other thing that makes this skeleton special: the animal it belonged to is believed to have suffered from a brain tumour.

Soon after this particular Gorgosaurus was dug out of the Montana mud in 1997, scientists noticed a golf ball-sized mass in the giant's skull, tangled and black. Tests showed it was formed from bony fragments that were not attached to the skull itself. Best guess: a tumour. That would account for the large number of broken and subsequently healed bones in the dino's body. Tumours often lead to poor balance – disastrous for a dinosaur that already had to carry its massive, one-tonne bulk around. But the tumour theory was based only on logical assumptions. Now, new technology will enable scientists to tell with more certainty what happened to the unfortunate Gorgosaurus 72 million years ago.

 Gorgosaurus Tumour 2014 07 08
Inside the Gorgosaurus skull, scientists noticed a golf ball-sized mass. Image: Phil Manning

Manchester University's Phil Manning is part of a team that over the next few years plans to subject the Montana Gorgosaurus to a series of tests to reveal the specific chemistry associated with the fractures, breaks and the supposed tumour. "When there's a break in an animal's body, a suite of enzymes rush to that bone to heal it," Manning says. He explains that this chemical process leaves traces in the bone that can be uncovered millions of years later.

To do that, scientists will employ powerful focused x-rays generated using a particle accelerator known as a synchrotron. Point them at any spot on a fossil you want to analyse, and the beams can map its elemental composition. "The beam is so bright that you can see inside atoms," Manning says. 

Manning adds that this technology can help scientists find microscopic traces of minerals and trace metals inside fossils. It can also help them tell the difference between the organic minerals inside the fossil and the inorganic minerals that would have leached into the fossil from the surrounding rock, during the millions of years since the animal died.

“Technology like this has turned palaeontologists from fossil hunters into forensic scientists.”

When it comes to dino-related discoveries, the synchrotron has already delivered. For example, Manning's team has used synchrotron imaging techniques to discover that a giant carnivorous dinosaur known as Allosaurus could heal from trauma injuries. The technology has also allowed them to map pigment distribution in two early birds, Confuciusornis sanctus and Archaeopteryx.

It was once thought that Archaeopteryx's plumage was dark, but Manning discovered that its feathers were in fact patterned and light in colour, with dark edges and tips. Using the x-ray experiments, his team found trace metals associated with pigment and organic sulphur compounds that could only have come from the animal's original feathers.

Archaeopteryx Bird 2014 07 08
It was once thought that Archaeopteryx's plumage was dark. Image: Phil Manning.

"Pigmentation is a crucial interface between an organism and its environment," Manning says. (Think of a flamingo with its pink shrimp diet, or the black wolf whose colour gives it a predatory advantage in heavily forested areas.) "Pigmentation means adaptation, and if we can map the presence of this in an extinct organism, we can start asking questions about when the adaptation first happened and why."

Back with the mysterious case of the Montana Gorgosaurus, Manning's team hopes studying the ancient fossil over the coming months will offer up insights into dinosaur healing. Once upon a time that may have involved crude bone-slicing tactics, but now synchrotron analysis offers scientists a more elegant option. Eventually, Manning even hopes to be able to apply what they learn to the treatment of human illness. 

Technology like this has turned palaeontologists from fossil hunters into forensic scientists. Manning's synchrotron team includes a geochemist, physicists, geologists and a computational zoologist. His own work has changed so much in the last few years that he now calls himself a geo-biologist rather than a palaeontologist.

"We have the potential to map organic molecules within a fossil and to understand the kinetics of what happens when something is preserved in the ground for 65 million years," he says. "Compared to what we used to do it's like taking the Ancient Greek belief that there are only four elements, and then showing someone a periodic table."

Top header image: Hideya HAMANO, Flickr