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Fossil Recovery Method

Dr. Paul JohnstonDetermining what life was like on earth millions of years ago is what a paleontologist does on a daily basis. Although digging up dinosaur bones is an exciting part of the job, a lot of what scientists learn does not come from the skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus rex, but from smaller fossils of plants and sea creatures. Many of these fossils are difficult to find as they are embedded in rock, and attempts to remove them can cause damage to the specimen.

A fossilThis is a problem that Dr. Paul Johnston, a curator of Invertebrate Paleontology at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, faces on a regular basis. During his time at the Australian National University in Canberra, he developed a solution, making it possible to examine fossils previously trapped in rock.

Dr. Paul Johnston lifting fossil sponge Johnston wondered if he could modify a process using latex to imprint fossils deep within the stone. With help from technical officer Henryk Zapasnik, he devised a system replacing the naturally occurring calcium carbonate (which makes up the structure of a fossil) with a synthetic substitute.

The rocks are first immersed in hydrochloric acid under a vacuum to dissolve the fossils. Liquid plastic is then forced into the rock, filling the empty spaces and left to set for up to two weeks. When the plastic hardens, the sample is placed in a potent hydrofluoric acid bath, dissolving the rock and leaving behind plastic replicas of the fossils.

These replicas are less fragile than the original specimen, yet are exact duplicates of their originals. With this method, scientists are able to examine and catalogue fossils previously impossible to retrieve, opening up a new area of investigation of rock types not normally available for the standard treatment.

Though developed in the 1980s, this technology has been slow to catch on for technical reasons. The method requires a slow-setting plastic, difficult to find in Canada. However, Johnston has recently utilized his technology in the projects he is currently involved in.

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