Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The Cutting Edge of Palaeontology

By John Long

New techniques are enabling palaeontologists to test hypotheses about major evolutionary transitions.

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Recently I spent a few days working with my colleagues at the Australian Synchrotron in Melbourne. We used the facility to get clear 3-D images of our ancient fossil fishes for various research projects. The facility is costly to run, so we utilised the time around the clock, with specimens being changed at all hours of the night to maximise our allocated beam time.

Finally near the end of the 48-hour session, we were almost done. Our last specimen, a 380-million-year-old placoderm fish male’s reproductive clasper, was scanned to the rousing chorus of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in the wee hours of the night to much rejoicing by the team.

This approach to research is not new to palaeontology, but an emerging trend in which cutting-edge techniques are increasingly used to extract whole new layers of information from fossils. They can potentially result in exciting and unexpected discoveries.

The incredible fossilised sperm preserved in 16-million-year-old Riversleigh ostracods reported in this column in July was revealed though synchrotron scanning . The synchrotron, though, is really just an elaborate method of imaging fossils in high resolution 3D formats, but other new technologies are now available that enable us to take fossils or data derived from them in exciting new directions.

Two recent palaeontology papers demonstrate how the use of...

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