By Wendy L.Taylor
All scientists use one tool more than any other in their academic arsenal – the power of observation. A keen sense of observation is the foundation of rigorous science and the key to unlocking new discoveries. In the world of field-based research, what we observe – often in the most physically challenging and uncomfortable of settings – fuels our curiosity and inspires our most basic urge to explore the world. Ionian philosophers, Anaximander and Xenophanes, of ancient Greece made some of the earliest geological observations during the 6th Century B.C.E. They noticed the presence of fossil fish and shells in rock far removed from oceans of the day and suggested they were once living animals buried in mud during ancient floods. Observations like these, paved the way for the birth of paleontology, the study of the history of life. As a modern day paleontologist, I have access to an array of powerful technologies designed to enhance and sharpen my powers of observation in the field and lab. Some new and some not-so-new tools including photogrammetry and panoramic photography, X-ray imaging and even robotic technologies make it possible to capture important scientific details and share discoveries with the public in new and exciting ways. Here are some examples from our recent expedition to study the extraordinary fossils of the Digermulen Peninsula in northern Finnmark.
First used on a large scale by the military for combat purposes, growth in the use of UAV’s (unmanned aerial vehicles) or drones has dramatically expanded over the past 10 years due to the miniaturization of scientific instrumentation and the accessibility of affordable models. Today there is widespread deployment of drones in the biological, geological and atmospheric sciences. Images and video taken by our project’s drone, affectionately named “Major Tom”, at Digermulen give a bird’s-eye view of important rock outcrops (Fig. 1) that record approximately 200 million years of Earth history during a critical time in evolution of complex life. These rocks contain the oldest evidence of multicellular animal life in Scandinavia!
Another tool we use to image rock surfaces in the field is panoramic photography. This technique is done with a camera mounted on a specialized panoramic tripod head that allows 360° rotation on a tripod (Fig. 2). A series of images are taken at 30° increments and stitched together using specialized software.
The resultant 360° interactive movies or “sphericals” can be hosted on websites and offer an immersive view of remote field sites (Fig. 2). Examples of spherical panoramas used for geoscience education can be found online at http://vft.asu.edu. We also capture high-resolution gigapixel panoramas that are made of 100’s to over 1000 images stitched together. These images give researchers the chance to study the details of large areas that are difficult to access in the field and can also be used in a variety of educational contexts.
For the study of much smaller features such as the delicate morphology (form and structure) of fossils and their state of preservation in the rock (or taphonomy), we use macro photography (see Fig. 3). This type of photography is done using a camera with a macro or close-up lens mounted on a tripod (or copystand) with lights. Many fossils require extra preparation before they can be photographed. The first step involves the cleaning and removal of any extra rock covering the fossil (mechanical preparation), 2) blackening with water-based ink to reduce the effect of colors on the surface, and then 3) whitening with ammonium chloride to bring out fine details. Whitening is done with a glass tube filled with ammonium chloride powder that is heated over a flame (Fig. 2). When heated the powder forms a gas that sublimates when it cools to form a white coating on the rock. This enhances fine surface details and often brings out features the eye cannot discern. Now the fossil is ready to be photographed.
These modern tools enhance our limited human capabilities allowing us to make many more observations much more precisely. We need all the help we can get to extract the elusive clues of how organisms lived and died in ancient oceans over 540 million years ago!