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Scanner Reveals What Lurks In Ancient Amber

May 19, 2011
Written by: , Filed in: Musculoskeletal Radiology
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What do you do when you’re a scientist trying to study a small prehistoric creature trapped in ancient amber that’s dark and cracked?

Run it through a CT scanner, of course.

Researchers at the Berlin Natural History Museum in Germany could barely make out, even under a microscope, a spider that had been preserved 49 million years ago in a piece of Baltic amber. So they sent the amber to the University of Manchester in England. There, the Henry Moseley X-ray Imaging Facility has a suite of 3-D scanners that operate at scales ranging from 1 meter to 50 nanometers.

Said David Penney, PhD, of the university’s life sciences faculty:

These old, historical amber pieces have reacted with oxygen over time and are now often dark or cracked, making it hard to see the animal specimens inside.”

Not a problem for X-rays. Check out the short (1:57) but amazing video of the 3-D images here, embedded in a university news release. Wait for the incredibly detailed look, near the end, at one of the pedipalps.

No wonder Philip Withers, the professor who established the imaging facility, sounds so proud:

Normally, such fossils are really hard to detect because the contrast against the amber is low, but with phase contrast imaging, the spiders really jump out at you in 3-D. Usually you have to go to a synchroton X-ray facility to get good phase contrast, but we can get excellent phase contrast in the lab.

“This really exciting,” he continued, “because it opens up the embedded fossil archive, not just in ambers.”

This specimen turned out to be the earliest known example of a huntsman spider, so called because it hunts its prey rather than spinning a web and waiting for the prey to come to it.

The researchers published their results late last month in the online edition of the journal Naturwissenschaften.

Expect more spider scans.

Related seminar: Computed Body Tomography: The Cutting Edge

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