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After millions of years in the ground, they are now available online


The pioneering work done at the ESRF to image fossils is now starting to become accessible to everyone. A new online database will make microtomographic information, processed data, pictures and videos freely available for published specimens, enabling the palaeontological community as a whole to share the benefits from the use of synchrotron light.

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Paul Tafforeau, palaeontologist at the ESRF, has set up the website in response to the new abilities synchrotron sources like the ESRF offer for fossil studies. In the last few years, application of third generation synchrotron X-ray imaging in palaeontology has revolutionized non-destructive 3D imaging of fossils. In addition to far higher quality scans using “classical” X-ray absorption methods than conventional machines can reach, synchrotrons allow the use of other methods, based on phase contrast, that are thousands of times more sensitive. Initiated at the ESRF, these techniques improved dramatically the possibilities of non-destructive investigations on fossils.

However, this new potential also brings its own challenges. Previously, a fossil of a newly-described species would be designated as the ‘holotype’ representative of that species, establishing a standard among researchers. Because most of the fossils studied at the ESRF are invisible or described on the basis of hidden internal structures that can be revealed only using a synchrotron, the classical holotype concept is not really applicable. In such cases, giving full access to the synchrotron data becomes as important, or even more important than giving access to the sample itself.

This is where the database comes in. By publishing the information on most of the newly published samples, others in the field can access to these virtual holotypes without needing to redo the experiment. In addition, some authors will publish their tomographic data in raw form, so other groups can perform alternative processing if they consider that helpful. Making raw data available is fairly standard in other scientific fields, but extremely rarely done in palaeontology.

The first entries in the database are some of the many insects found in opaque amber, including the damselfly Electrohemiphlebia barucheli. This creature was named in honour of the ESRF’s head of imaging, José Baruchel, in gratitude for his constant support of palaeontological experiments. Further species will be added continually by palaeontologists visiting the ESRF and on-site researchers. Tafforeau sees this database as the seed of something greater for his research field: “By giving access to some of the best microtomographic data available on fossils, we hope to start a dynamic of data sharing in palæontology.”

The ESRF Palaeontological Database

Top image: One of the images from the new database; a wasp, trapped in opaque amber for millions of years.