Lead Forensics

CT scanning helps uncover 350M-year-old tetrapod fossil in Scotland

Jan 12, 2017 | 3D Scanning, CT Scanning

(Adapted from original story in 3Ders.org)

Palaeontologists in Scotland have used CT Scanning technology to uncover one of the first animals to ever crawl up out of the water and walk the shores of land.

Hailing from Southern Scotland, ‘Tiny’ is one of the first land-living vertebrates. As a Tetrapod – an evolutionary development that includes reptiles, amphibians, birds, and mammals – ‘Tiny’ dates back about 350 million years, and her discovery marks a major breakthrough for palaeontologists.

Yet no one has actually seen ‘Tiny’, so to speak. Her fossil, which remains encased in unassuming black rock, bears no indication of the treasures inside. And without today’s technology, ‘Tiny’ might remain undiscovered in that rock for ages to come, unbeknown to scientists.

“We didn’t really know it was in the small piece of rock that we collected until it was CT scanned,” explains Dr. Nick Fraser, Keeper of Natural Sciences at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

“We were quite surprised to find ‘Tiny’ hiding in the sediment – we still only know it from the 3D scan and the 3D print and so haven’t had the pleasure of seeing the actual fossil!”

The recent influx of 3D scanning technology, has meant that researchers can now undertake detailed CT scans of ancient unearthed rocks and has opened up some revolutionary new discoveries.

Tiny is one of those discoveries. Small in size but gargantuan in palaeontological findings, ‘Tiny’s existence was revealed through micro CT-scanning. This 3D scanning method allowed researchers to digitally reconstruct ‘Tiny’ in minute detail, without damaging her protective casing of rock. The fossil can remain entirely intact without sacrificing any of the data inside.

While any fossil discovery is exciting, the revelation of ‘Tiny’ is particularly significant, as she dates back to a time period that has, up until now, yielded very few fossils.

Named after paleontologist Alfred Romer, Romer’s Gap references a period ranging from 360 to 345 million years ago (also known as the Tournaisian period), and a sizeable gap in our archaeological knowledge.

Romer’s Gap is precisely the time period when animals are thought to have begun living on land, yet a lack of fossils from the period obscures this crucial evolutionary development. It’s hard to say why the lack of fossils and other concrete evidence has occurred. Mass extinction and low oxygen are two possible explanations.

As Dr. Fraser explains, the first animals to walk the land with backbones constitute “a pivotal step in the evolution of life on land – without it there would have been no salamanders, no frogs, no crocodiles, no lizards, no dinosaurs, no birds, no mammals and therefore of course no humans.”

In this sense, ‘Tiny’ is actually one of our earliest ancestors – a discovery that may not be so tiny after all.

(See the full 3Ders.org story)

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