Seeing the past with X-ray vision
Sep 4, 2013
This short film takes you inside what has been described as "the world's finest fossil photo booth". The European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) has pioneered a technique that enables palaeontologists to see 3D details of fossils with unprecedented clarity – without causing any damage to samples. When using the technique, known as X-ray microtomography, researchers scan fossils with synchrotron radiation from thousands of different angles to produce a set of radiographs. These virtual slices can then be combined to create 3D reconstructions of the samples, including the exquisite detail of internal structures.
The mastermind behind the imaging technique is Paul Tafforeau, a palaeontologist and beamline scientist based at the ESRF. In this film, Tafforeau demonstrates how fossils are scanned in his fossil photo booth; he describes the history of the technique and how palaeontology has become an important area of scientific research at the ESRF. One recent study that received a lot of media attention involved a fossilized ancient primate known as Archicebus Achilles. The film looks at the significance of this breakthrough to palaeontology and Tafforeau describes how his team was able to produce a near-perfect 3D reconstruction of Archicebus Achilles, despite the fact that several bones were missing from the fossil.
Another recent study that features in the film is the analysis of a 250 million-year-old fossilized burrow, recently discovered in South Africa. By peering inside the burrow using the X-ray microtomography technique, researchers discovered that two unrelated vertebrate animals appeared to have been cohabiting in the same burrow before they both met their demise. This was a great surprise to the researchers, who were left trying to piece together a scenario into why this might have happened.