AMS Spring 2023

Studying the Fossil Record Using 3D Technologies and Reality Computing

Inkbit

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If you lived in Scotland over 410 million years ago, you might have seen a creature called a trigonotarbid, a member of a now extinct group of arachnids. Assuming, however, that you had no such luck, there is no longer any need to worry that you will spend the rest of your existence on this earth without at least being able to see a highly accurate, computer generated animation that shows you what you missed out on. Reality computing was used to create the animation based on information gathered from the early arachnid’s fossil and can now be easily integrated into your spider-based nightmares (or daydreams) by watching the video from Science News:

Scientists, reaping the benefits of advances in 3D technologies, have been using techniques such as CT scanning and 3D modeling to create 3D versions of extinct creatures that allow them to study the creatures in much greater depth. Prior to the integration of this technology into the study of fossils, the only way to create a 3D model from a fossil was to painstakingly grind the fossil down layer by layer, capturing each freshly revealed slice on film and then reconstructing the fos2fossil’s originator in wax. Aside from the extremely slow nature of such a process, there was the added disadvantage that it required complete destruction of the fossil. When working with an organism that had left a plethora of evidence in the fossil record this might not have been so problematic, but when studying fossils that were unique or at least extremely rare, it was difficult to justify this type of destruction and the resulting loss to the fossil record.

There’s more to making these 3D models than simply satisfying researchers’ curiosity. Studying the form of the plant or animal that created the fossil actually reveals additional information about how that organism functioned. In the case of the trigonotarbid, researchers were able to gain a much greater understanding of the way in which its legs had evolved in order to allow it to walk on land. The fossil itself was so perfectly preserved that scientists could actually study the creature’s leg joints in order to better understand how it tracked down and attacked its prey. The fact that when these arachnids terrorized the planet as Earth’s first land predators, they were only the size of the head of a pin would have also made such careful examination impossible without the aid of the detail and accuracy provided through 3D technologies.

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A slice of fossil revealing the articulation of the leg joints

Jason Dunlop, co-author of a research paper about the subject published in the Journal of Paleontology, was, understandably, quite enthusiastic about the integration of high tech apparatus into the study of the diminutive predator:

“This new study has gone further and shows how they probably walked. For me, what’s really exciting here is that scientists themselves can make these animations now, without needing the technical wizardry (and immense costs) of a Jurassic-Park style film. When I started working on fossil arachnids, we were happy if we could manage a sketch of what they used to look like. Now, they run across our computer screens.”

It’s not just spiders and other creepy crawlies whose secrets can be unlocked through such techniques. The semirostrum, a relative of the modern day porpoise, left its mark in the fossil record three million years ago. Through CT imaging and modeling, scientists were able to demonstrate, for the first time, that its anatomy was such that it had sensory organs in its lower jaw. As the semirostrum captured its prey by sifting through sediment on the floor of the ocean, these sensory organs were a vital part of its ability to locate its food. The question that arises then is why modern day porpoises, which capture prey using the same technique of sifting, have managed to avoid extinction despite the lack of what, on the surface, would appear to be an extremely helpful adaptation.

This is not the first time that 3D technologies have been used to advance the study of extinct species. In fact, it is becoming a relatively common aspect of paleontological study. What is unique in this application is the extension of the area of inquiry to include information captured in fossils, without requiring the destruction of the fossil itself. The animations and 3D models that can be created in this way will help to further extend the possibilities for studying organisms that no longer exist. And, if nothing else, may lead to an invasion of 3D printed trigonotarbids marching across the desks of arachnid lovers everywhere.

Maybe there should even be a Saturday morning cartoon spinoff.

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