Researchers discover earliest record of rugose coral

December 24, 2012
Researchers discover earliest record of rugose coral
Specimens of the fossilised coral. Image courtesy of Dr Christian Baars, Amgueddfa Cymru.

High-energy X-rays produced by Diamond Light Source, the UK's national synchrotron science facility, have revealed the earliest rugose coral recorded to date. Using high-resolution tomography enabled by the Diamond synchrotron, researchers from Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales and Golestan University (Iran) were able to create 3D images of the rare fossil, without having to sample it destructively. The clear, detailed images confirmed that the fossil was a 462 million year-old rugose coral, five million years older than previous discoveries of this type. The results, published online in Geological Magazine, demonstrate that this non-destructive synchrotron technique holds great promise for the "virtual dissecting" of fossils and could be set to transform palaeontological studies in the UK.

The bright, intense and finely focused produced by a synchrotron are expert at revealing the atomic and molecular details of tiny nano- or micrometre samples of material. But fossils tend to be giant in the world of , needing extremely high-energy X-rays to penetrate the millimetres of rock they are encased within. These recent results prove that the technique works. Synchrotron tomography is effectively simulating the traditional method of slicing sections from the to help identify what it is and when it became fossilised. The advantage is that the fossil remains intact and the information uncovered is incredibly detailed. Current developments at the Diamond synchrotron are set to enable researchers to discover the chemical details of their fossil, along with their image.

Lead researcher, Dr Christian Baars, from Amgueddfa Cymru, will present the rugose coral 3D images on Monday 17th December 2012 at the Palaeontological Association's Annual Meeting, which takes place at University College Dublin. Dr Baars explains, "Traditionally, in order to accurately describe corals and some other kinds of fossils, we would section and photograph or draw these fossils. Being a destructive technique, this is not always desirable but, until recently, has been unavoidable. X-ray tomography carried out at Diamond enabled us to produce images of these fossils non-destructively by measuring the relatively small density contrast between calcite and quartz to give high quality reconstructions of the fossil. It is extremely exciting to see that this technique works. It could change the way we carry out taxonomy of fossils. National Museum staff are already planning to analyse further samples, for instance the tiny fossilised eggs of 450 million year old sea creatures."

Researchers discover earliest record of rugose coral
Morphology of rugose corals. Image courtesy of Dr Christian Baars, Amgueddfa Cymru.

Rugose corals are thought to have evolved during the Ordovician geological period (488 – 444 million years ago) from animals such as sea anemones that started secreting a hard skeleton made of calcite. Soft-bodied animals like sea anemones have a very poor fossil record as, normally, only the hard skeleton of animals is preserved. The new fossil is also of particular interest to palaeontologists because it lived in a part of the world which was in similar latitudes as today's central Argentina or southern Australia when most other early rugose corals lived at around the equator. This is important as it changes our ideas of how and where these organisms evolved.

Dr Robert Atwood, Senior Support Scientist on Diamond's JEEP (Joint Engineering and Environmental and Processing) beamline adds, "This work has been really important for Diamond. It has enabled us to establish that we can examine partially silicified fossils, which are embedded in a calcareous rock matrix, and help palaeontologists uncover secrets that have been locked away for millions of years. The tomography that we can offer researchers provides good contrast because we provide a high energy, monochromatic X-ray beam which is very stable. This means the beam can penetrate relatively thick rock sections to observe the fossils that lie inside with good sensitivity to small differences in the minerals. This helps researchers like Dr Baars avoid cutting rare and unique specimens into pieces. In the case of the rugose coral, we rotated the fossil in the X-ray beam and obtained 6,000 images during the experiment."

Dr Atwood continues, "Using our post-experimental data analysis, we were then able to then put these images together and produce the three-dimensional reconstruction of the fossil. This reconstruction gave Dr Christian Baars and his colleagues the clues they needed to confirm the fossil as the earliest rugose coral recorded to date. We are looking forward to working with other museums and university based palaeontologists to help them gain access to this exciting synchrotron technique."

Explore further: First studies of fossil of new human ancestor take place at the European Synchrotron

More information: 'The earliest rugose coral.' Christian Baars, Mansoureh Ghobadi Pour & Robert Atwood, Geological Magazine, 2012 doi:10.1017/S0016756812000829

Related Stories

 A good week for fossil hunters

July 5, 2010

( -- With the discovery of an extinct big-toothed sperm whale and possibly the earliest known examples of multicellular life, this week has been a good one for fossil hunters and experts, some of who are meeting ...

X-rays reveal hidden leg of an ancient snake

February 7, 2011

( -- A novel X-ray imaging technology is helping scientists better understand how in the course of evolution snakes have lost their legs. The researchers hope the new data will help resolve a heated debate about ...

Recommended for you

Ancient genome from Africa sequenced for the first time

October 8, 2015

The first ancient human genome from Africa to be sequenced has revealed that a wave of migration back into Africa from Western Eurasia around 3,000 years ago was up to twice as significant as previously thought, and affected ...

Rare braincase provides insight into dinosaur brain

October 8, 2015

Experts have described one of the most complete sauropod dinosaur braincases ever found in Europe. The find could help scientists uncover some of the mysteries of how dinosaur brains operated, including their intellectual ...

How much for that Nobel prize in the window?

October 3, 2015

No need to make peace in the Middle East, resolve one of science's great mysteries or pen a masterpiece: the easiest way to get yourself a Nobel prize may be to buy one.

The dark side of Nobel prizewinning research

October 4, 2015

Think of the Nobel prizes and you think of groundbreaking research bettering mankind, but the awards have also honoured some quite unhumanitarian inventions such as chemical weapons, DDT and lobotomies.

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Dec 24, 2012
I don't know why they are surprised with the latitude, the oceans were warmer.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.