BEHIND the war of words over the significance of Ida, the 47-million-year-old primate fossil unveiled last week, a quiet revolution in palaeontolgy is unfolding. Thanks to a souped-up version of a technique better known for its use in medical diagnostics, we are gaining unprecedented insights into the way prehistoric creatures lived, breathed and grew.
The technique is X-ray computed tomography (CT). Though X-rays have been used to look into fossils since this type of radiation was discovered in 1895, the flat images it produced changed little over the following century. As recently as 2004, a review in The British Journal of Radiology (vol 77, p 420) saw little merit in X-ray images of fossils beyond acting as a guide to palaeontologists chipping away the rock encasing them.
CT changes all that.
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