Nanofossils in the "third dimension"

Scanning electron microscope provides new insights into paloontology

Coccolithophorides in 3D © Harald Andruleit, BGR
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Dinosaur bones, petrified plant remains, or primeval flies surrounded by amber - fossils are not always so spectacular and clearly visible. Because so-called nanofossils are usually only a few micro-millimeters in size and thus much too small for the human eye. However, a scanning electron microscope (SEM) often reveals bizarre structures that shed light on the living conditions of bygone times.

Small, Smaller and Smaller - Micropalaeontology specializes in the study of tiny fossils that are too small even for the classical light microscope. Only with the aid of a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) can details be captured with extreme clarity. For scientists, this means advancing into a new dimension, such as research on calcareous nanofossils.

Modern and digitally controlled SEM devices routinely produce stereo or 3D images, as in this image example of a coccolithophoride. Despite its tiny size of only 3 to 30 μm (1 μm = 0.001 mm), it is one of the most important group of marine phytoplankton. Coccolithophorides are used primarily for sediment age estimation and as an indicator of paleoenvironmental conditions, making them an important tool in applied geosciences.

Using so-called "red-green glasses", these special images on the monitor can be viewed in three dimensions, giving a completely new insight into their spatial structure. The stereo images are created according to the anaglyph method. An object is taken from different angles and superimposed by means of special software as a red and green image.

In other areas, stereo images have been used for a long time. For example, it is possible to construct 3D models based on topographical landscape images. It is precisely this technique that is now to be applied to the complex geometry of coccolithophores. The vivid computer models help answer fundamental questions about functional morphology and ecology and provide new insights into the mysterious world of these tiny creatures. display


The Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR) maintains geoscientific collections in Berlin and Hanover and monthly presents one of its interesting finds on the Internet: The Collection of the Month (BGR)

(Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR), 11.04.2006 - AHE)