Palaeo Down Under 2016: Part 3

  Last updated March 6, 2017 at 3:24 pm

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Our Director Paul Willis is attending the second Palaeo Down Under conference, touching base with his old palaeontology mates. He will be sharing it on social media and blog around this conference for the next few days. See part 1 and part 2


You’ve probably not put cutting-edge technology in the same sentence as palaeontology before but this morning we were treated to a range of presentations on both how the latest and greatest technologies available are being applied to fossils and, conversely, how the challenges represented by hardened lumps of rock are driving innovations in a number of technological fields.


Many of the papers looked at imaging techniques; being able to look inside the rock to see what’s there.


Using high energy beams from synchrotrons and a neutron beam called DINGO at ANSTO, palaeontologists can peer inside a rock and analyse details of the fossil within without breaking it open. These imaging techniques can be used at ultra-small scales through to bits of dinosaurs. And the fidelity of what they can see now is completely unexpected. We were treated to images of brains, nerves, guts, livers and hearts preserved in creatures that died hundreds of millions of years ago. These ‘soft’ structures are mostly imperceptible to the human eye and exist today as ghosts defined by slightly harder rock than their surroundings.



Image: A look inside a 30 million year old fruit imaged by a synchrotron


Our presenter, John Long, lamented that many of the fish that he had previously prepared by dissolving the rock with dilute acid probably had the same soft structures preserved inside but now he has unwittingly destroyed them forever.



Image: A 100 million-year-old fossil crab still completely encased in rock imaged using the neutron beam DINGO at ANSTO


Other technologies can take these scans and turn them into movable 3D images magnified hundreds of times so that you can take a virtual walk-through of the sinus systems of a fish no bigger than your hand that went extinct over 350 million years ago. Of you can print the scans, digitally magnified many times to reveal details that had previously been missed.


And this fossil work is driving the technology. It’s unusual for the latest generation of imaging scanners to have to deal with objects that are so hard in search of details that are created by very slight differences in hardness. In fact one imaging system developed at ANU, principally developed by analysing fossils, recently sold to a European buyer for $75 million. So who ever said there’s no new money in a bunch of ancient bones?



Image: Structures and spaces inside a fleck of 350 million year old fish bone made possible by synchrotron imaging


 


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About the Author

Paul Willis
Paul is a respected leader in the science community with an impressive career in science. He has a background in vertebrate palaeontology, studying the fossils of crocodiles and other reptiles. He also has a long history as a science communicator, with a career spanning as Director of The Royal Institution of Australia, presenter and host for Australia’s Science Channel, working for the ABC on TV programs such as Catalyst and Quantum as well as radio and online. He’s written books and articles on dinosaurs, fossils and rocks and is finding new ways to engage the people of Australia with the science that underpins their world. Follow him on Twitter @fossilcrox.

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The Royal Institution of Australia is an independent charity, and the sister organisation of the prestigious Royal Institution of Great Britain, tasked with promoting public awareness and understanding of science.


The Royal Institution of Australia is passionate about building and connecting communities engaged with science, and as such works closely with scientific organisations, institutions, universities from Australia, and leaders to inspire the next generation of innovators and to create a lasting legacy for Australia.


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