Virtual Palaeontology: What’s It All About?

Yesterday, something quite brilliant happened. An application for funding that I had written was approved, meaning I now have the money to carry out a project that I am very enthusiastic about. What is this project, I hear you ask (or not)? Well, it involves computers, art, 3-D and dead creatures. Intrigued now? Read on!

Fossils, the remains of once-living animals, plants and other organisms, provide us with our only direct record of pre-historic life. They are studied by palaeontologists – scientists who use fossils and other lines of evidence to reconstruct the history of life on Earth. Palaeontology is also of great interest to many non-scientists, and there is a certain fascination to be had imagining what long-extinct animals such as dinosaurs, trilobites and woolly mammoths were like when they were alive.

One of the main difficulties with using fossils to engage the public with science is that the most spectacular specimens are exceptionally rare and often very fragile. As a result, these extraordinary fossils are typically locked away in museums for safekeeping, and are not widely accessible. With this in mind, the aim of this project is to develop a resource that will allow anyone, not just scientists, to view and interact with fossils.

Sounds like a tall order, eh? Well, actually, all the tools needed to do this are now readily available to scientists. Using CT scanning, we can create 3-D computer reconstructions of fossils without causing any damage to the original specimens. These ‘virtual fossils’ are fantastic! They can be spun, zoomed and dissected in a way no real fossil allows. This video by Dr Russell Garwood explains the process perfectly:


Nice, huh? One clear advantage of virtual fossils is because they are digital objects, anyone with a computer can view and interact with them. All the time, the original fossil remains safe from harm. So, the first part of the resource I’m developing will involve computer reconstructions of exceptionally preserved, 3-D fossils. Read all about the second part in my next post!

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10 Responses to Virtual Palaeontology: What’s It All About?

  1. Roz says:

    Just fantastic.. There is so much to learn.. Keep up the great work!

  2. Chris says:

    Wow !! thats fantastic . I think this will be a great resource for both the proffessionals and keen collectors

  3. Didier Bert says:

    Tha’t absolutely fantastic!
    I saw recently an interesting paper in Science using the same method on ammonites (Kruta et al.).

  4. The Kruta et al. paper is a nice one. They actually used synchrotron X-ray tomographic microscopy, which is very high-resolution variant of CT that uses a particle accelerator (the synchrotron). Something I’ll hopefully cover in this blog at some point!

  5. Pingback: Not Just Computers! | Virtual Palaeontology

  6. Pingback: Art Meets (Virtual) Fossils | Virtual Palaeontology

  7. John Ryan says:

    Very interesting, Is there anything that creates 3D images from hollow molds which cannot be successfully cast ?

  8. Hi John. It is indeed possible to create a 3-D virtual cast of a fossil that is preserved as a hollow mould. This is done first using CT scanning to image the mould in the rock. Then, the inverse of the mould (i.e. a virtual cast) can be generated using computer software through a process called thresholding ( Hope that helps!

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