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3-D scans reveal secrets of extinct creatures

New modeling paired with X-ray scanning exposes every angle of hard-to-extract fossils

2:30pm, September 19, 2014
reconstruction of an arachnid

VIRTUALLY THERE  On a paleontologist’s computer screen, this arachnid moves as it did 410 million years ago.

View the video or View the slideshow

All Rachel Racicot wanted to do was look at a fossil. As a paleontology graduate student at San Diego State University, Racicot had scheduled some time with a local hospital’s CT scanner. She was going to examine a 3-million-year-old porpoise jaw.

But when the day came to slide the fossil into the scanner, the hospital put her on hold. A stabbing victim needed the CT machine. Paleontology would have to wait.

For Racicot and her colleagues, such temporary setbacks are a small price to pay. In the last few years, cutting-edge CT scans and other novel techniques have dramatically altered how paleontologists visualize and study ancient life. Detailed images provided by the improved technologies are allowing researchers to build digital three-dimensional reconstructions of prehistoric plants and animals like never before.

This field is called virtual paleontology. It

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