Mapping prehistoric ghosts in the synchrotron


The detailed chemical analysis of fossils has the potential to reveal great insight to the composition, preservation and biochemistry of ancient life. Such analyses would ideally identify, quantify, and spatially resolve the chemical composition of preserved bone and soft tissue structures, but also the embedding matrix. Mapping the chemistry of a fossil in situ can place constraints on mass transfer between the enclosing matrix and the preserved organism(s), and therefore aid in distinguishing taphonomic processes from original chemical zonation remnant within the fossils themselves. Conventional analytical methods, such as scanning electron microscopy (SEM) and pyrolysis–gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (Py-GC/MS) have serious limitations in this case, primarily, an inability to provide large (i.e., decimeter) scale chemical maps. Additionally, vacuum chamber size and the need for destructive sampling preclude analysis of large and precious fossil specimens. However, the recent development of Synchrotron Rapid Scanning X-ray Fluorescence (SRS-XRF) at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL) allows the non-destructive chemical analysis and imaging of major, minor, and trace element concentrations of large paleontological and archeological specimens in rapid scanning times. Here we present elemental maps of a fossil reptile produced using the new SRS-XRF method. Our results unequivocally show that preserved biological structures are not simply impressions or carbonized remains, but possess a remnant of the original organismal biochemistry. We show that SRS-XRF is a powerful new tool for the study of paleontological and archaeological samples.

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Edwards, N.P., Wogelius, R.A., Bergmann, U. et al. Mapping prehistoric ghosts in the synchrotron. Appl. Phys. A 111, 147–155 (2013).

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  • Synchrotron
  • X-Ray fluorescence
  • Green river formation