QMT Features: April 2017
Unlocking primeval mysteries
A laser scanner supplied by Manchester Metrology is solving the fossil mysteries of Little Catalina

Emily Mitchell a palaeontologist from the University of Cambridge, is using a hand-held laser from Manchester Metrology LTD to map thousands of large, complex fossils — dating from about 560 million years ago — along the Bonavista Peninsula coastline in Little Catalina in Newfoundland, Canada.

“They’re very complicated and they’re very large, they can be up to a metre long and they’re really, really weird-looking,” Emily told CBC Radio’s Central Morning Show.  “They don’t look like animals, and they don’t look like plants, and they don’t look like fungi or mushrooms and as a result it’s very hard to work out what they actually were.”
Emily says the fossils are incredibly important.  “This is the first time that we see large things that probably are the precursors to animals actually appearing.  It records the fossil surface to very, very small detail, we can get .05 of a millimetre so that’s very, very small.  That detail is important because the fossils are incredibly difficult to photograph.  They’re not very deep into rock so photographs have to wait for the exact perfect light to capture them so it’s quite difficult and that perfect light can only last for half an hour an hour on some surfaces.”

Ms Mitchell shipped 150 kilograms of equipment from the UK in order to record the fossil surface, including a generator and the FARO laser scanner, supplied by Manchester Metrology, which is mounted on a tripod with a mechanical arm.  This is an extremely accurate, portable coordinate measuring machine that measures quickly, simply and precisely
The equipment records the fossils, which are not allowed to be moved, exactly where they are on the rock face.  The laser can also capture the entire surface of the rock, and pick up details researchers wouldn’t necessarily be able to see at the site.

Emily’s speciality involves looking at the spatial positions of fossils.  “These creatures didn’t move around, so the place where they are on the rock face encapsulates their entire life history, so how they reproduced, how they interacted with neighbours and local environment,” she said.

By combining the scans and statistical analysis, researchers can compare the spatial positions of the fossils on the rock-face to modern organisms to work out biological facts, such as how they reproduced. During the three weeks spent in Newfoundland, Mitchell and colleagues from Memorial University and the British Geological Survey mapped about 4000 fossils.

Emily said the combination of very large surfaces, unique species, and the oldest complex organisms in the fossil record make the area a “brilliant” place to do research. She plans to return next year to continue her research in Port Union, where a rare fossil discovery, Haootia quadriformis, was made in 2009.
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