Helmut Tischlinger is the man shaping what your children will think dinosaurs looked like. Most of you probably know that the illustrations of dinosaurs we grew up with were created through a process that includes as much speculation as science. Fossils, obviously, couldn't tell us what color T. Rex was, or whether the skin of a velociraptor felt like a lizard's—as is popularly portrayed. Tischlinger is at the forefront of efforts to improve our understanding of what dinosaurs looked like on the outside—and inside—using UV light to pick out the ephemeral remains of soft tissues. His photos—created using hand-made lens filters—are regarded as some of the best work out there.
This technique is a big part of why scientists now draw creatures like the microraptor with feathers, instead of leathery skin or scales. That's one of Tischlinger's photos of a microraptor fossil at the top of this page. The gray arrows point to feathers that show up under a blacklight.
The Discovery Channel has a new, short video that really shows off the massive difference between what the human eye can see by looking at fossil under natural light, compared to what is visible when you turn on the UV. It's a little mind-blowing.
There's lots being written about this technique, and Helmut Tischlinger, especially early in 2010, when he published a paper on that microraptor. A couple of things you might want to check out:
• Helmut Tischlinger: The King of UV—on the blog Archosaur Musings, written by palaeontologist Dave Hone.
• The 2010 peer-reviewed article in PLoS One, written by Hone and Tischlinger, that details the microraptor fossil. The photo came from this paper. You can read the whole thing for free.
• Smithsonian story about that peer-reviewed paper, and why it's important.
• A 2009 peer-reviewed paper (also free to read) on the UV analysis of soft tissue in a pterosaur species
• Hell Bent for Feathers—Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs post that includes several more great links.
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.