National Geographic : 2009 Nov
PHOTOS: PAUL TAFFOREAU AND MALVINA LAK, ESRF/CNRS TECHNOLOGY X-ray Marks the Spot Problem: Amber is great at preserving fossils from key paleontological periods like the Cretaceous, when bugs boomed and dinosaurs disappeared, but the ancient tree sap can be so opaque that the treasures within are hidden. Solution: Synchrotron imaging, an x-ray technique more powerful than CT scanning and more precise than grindstone cutting. Over three years, French paleontologists Malvina Lak, Paul Tafforeau, and colleagues have used a synchro- tron to sift through 25 pounds of 100-million-year- old amber and find 1,000 fossils, including wasps, flies, and spiders. An x-ray beam penetrates the rock-like drippings and pinpoints the encased specimens, which the team builds up as comput- erized models and produces in 3-D plastic form. Bonus: Paleontologists, who have been known to guard their precious samples, may now start sharing the virtual wealth. ---Jeremy Berlin Amber X-ray This 3-D rendering of a 3-mm ant was made by scientists at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility. The actual insect had been preserved in 100-million-year-old opaque amber (far left) found in southwest France.