Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The Rise of High-Tech Palaeontology

By John Long

High-tech scanners now enable palaeontologists to gain new insights from significant fossils embedded in solid rock.

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

For many years palaeontologists had a fairly simple way of working. Many of us used to dig up fossils, photograph and draw them, describe them and publish a paper about them. What we could see was really all we could study.

This approach has changed dramatically in the past decade as high technology imaging now allows us to mine fossils for new layers of information. This has caused a revolution in the study of palaeontology as we can now apply various methods to image any part of a fossil, even if it’s still enclosed inside rock.

In 1980 during my Honours year I thought it was pretty radical to use a high-powered engineering X-ray machine to image fish fossils that were still in rock. This gave us a hazy but useful 2D image of the unexposed part of the fossil inside the rock, and worked well as long as the rock layer wasn’t too thick (e.g. less than 3 cm).

Then, in the early 2000s, micro-CT scanners arrived on the scene. The fossil spins around in the scanner and the X-rays make hundreds of slices through it, and these are digitally stitched together into a high-resolution 3D image. Using segmentation software we can then identify each cross-section of the series and colour the different bony elements to help identify the parts in 3D. Other software like the feeeware Drishti available from the Australian National University’s Vizlab allows us to...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.