Quantifying the Evolution of Early Life

Volume 36 of the series Topics in Geobiology pp 223-240


Fossils with Little Relief: Using Lasers to Conserve, Image, and Analyze the Ediacara Biota

  • Jonathan B. AntcliffeAffiliated withDepartment of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol Email author 
  • , Martin D. BrasierAffiliated withDepartment of Earth Sciences, University of Oxford

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Fifty years have now passed since the discovery of Charnia masoni and Charniodiscus concentricus in Charnwood Forest, UK. But what is Charnia? And how was it related to the great explosion of animal fossils at the base of the Cambrian that it immediately predates? Recent studies focussing on the growth dynamics and morphology of the group have been greatly aided by the use of innovative photographic and laser scanning techniques that allow the fossils to be analyzed to new levels of detail. Laser methods allow us to build a virtual map of each major fossil type that can then be viewed and rotated in three dimensions. Laser scanning can be undertaken up to a maximum precision of 1/20 mm. Lasers can be applied in the laboratory to collected specimens, or casts, or alternatively directly in the field to in situ specimens when working within fossil conservation areas. Taking laser scans of fossils is completely non-invasive, even unlike casting, the chemicals involved in which can damage delicate fossil surfaces. It is now being seen as a major new tool to aid in the preservation of critical fossil data. Where specimens remain in situ in the field, laser scans can be used to monitor the degradation of the fossils. Laser-based conservation of key fossil sites and specimens in England and Newfoundland is now being planned. We have applied this technique to critical fossil cites in Charnwood Forest and to key Ediacaran fossils from the UK, Newfoundland, Australia, and Russia, including Ivesheadia, Fractofusus, Charnia, Charniodiscus, Bradgatia, and Dickinsonia. Further, we shall review the ever expanding application of laser scanning techniques to a variety of paleontological problems exemplified by several diverse case studies, from dinosaur biomechanics to hexapod taxonomy. Laser scanning is increasingly been seen as a game changing technique in paleontology, that can not only conserve fossils and help with their analysis but also to widen access to highly restricted and critically important fossils.


Ediacara Biota Lasers Macrofossils High resolution scanning Precambrian