November 13, 2013
A New Look At Fossils
When someone mentions fossils, everyone immediately assumes that they are going to be talking about dinosaurs, and while dinosaurs are incredible, they are not the only things to have ever fossilized. Most notable is the study of plant fossils, which give us a look at what sort of plant life existed on Earth millions of years ago and how it is both similar and different from the various plant life we have covering our planet today. By studying plant fossils, we are able to learn what our home was like and how the planet itself has changed in all this time. The unfortunate part of studying plant fossils is that they are incredibly difficult to work with. To look at their internal structure, which is crucial for the study of plants, the fossils had to be cut open. This meant that each study was destroying the object of its research in the process, which then further limited the available fossils. And with well-preserved fossils already few and far between, specimens that have their reproductive organs still intact are even more rare; a rarity among rarities. A serious problem, until now.
A new study done by one Dr. Carole Dee at the University of Bonn in Germany has given us a whole new way of studying these remarkable fossils. By using microCT – that is high-resolution x-ray imaging – with 3D image segmentation and computer animation, Dr. Dee has created a way of looking at the internal structure of plant fossils without doing any damage to the specimen. Using her process, Dr. Dee has successfully examined a fossilized conifer seed cone that was 150 million years old without any damage done to it. A remarkable achievement. According to Dr. Carole Dee “Because each specimen is precious, the main goal of this research was to study the internal structure of fossil conifer seed cones without destroying or damaging them. It’s amazing to visualize internal structures of dinosaur-aged fossils in such great detail without cutting up the fossil or damaging them at all.”
Thus far, Dr. Dee’s study has been able to identify the fossils found as belonging to three families: Pinaceae, or pine trees, Araucariaceae, coniferous trees found in the Southern Hemisphere, and Cheirolepidiaceae, an extinct family of conifer trees from the Mesozoic period. This tells us what kinds of trees were found in that region – Utah – millions of years ago and how various trees that are now located only in one part of the world, namely the Araucariaceae which is now found only in
Dr. Dee’s work with microCT has given us a wonderful new look into the past, at what our world was once like, without taking away from potential research that could be done in the future. Because she did not need to destroy or damage her specimen in any way, it is still available for further studies, a great achievement in and of itself.
Image Credit: Thinkstock