Marine Fossil Database

The compelling applications of a new 2D and 3D imaging technology

How much knowledge does a fossil hold?

To explore this question, Leanne Elder, PhD and colleagues in the laboratory of Professor Pincelli Hull at Yale have developed a new imaging method—known as AutoMorph—in order to extract 2D and 3D representations of modern planktonic foraminifera, a major microfossil group. Using this data, her team was able to broadly categorize shape and morphological variation found in the planktonic foraminifera.

The fields of paleontology and evolutionary biology have recently been revolutionized with the emergence of 3D imaging technologies, which are able to provide high-resolution images of fossils. However, population studies of 3D morphological evolution have been limited by the time and data required to conduct these analyses. To address this, the researchers created AutoMorph, a more efficient imaging system.

Due to its abundant fossil record and significance in the study of past changes in oceanic conditions, planktonic foraminifera—tiny protists characterized by calcium carbonate shells—were chosen as the focus of data analysis. In the analytical process, the samples were glued to plain black slides and imaged using a high-resolution digital camera. Then, AutoMorph bioinformatics software was able to extract information such as pixel focus, planar difference, surface area, and volume to create very accurate 2D and 3D shapes and images of each fossil. The 3D shapes were then divided into broad categorizations based on their morphology such as “agglutinated” (cemented together), “echinoid” (spiny), “ostracod” (multiple appendages), and more. These morphologies correspond to evolutionary benefits in certain types of oceanic compositions, allowing scientists to better understand past and present oceanic conditions.

“The morphological variation of these organisms can help determine trends such as ocean productivity, oxygen level, and temperature, which will help us better understand global issues such as climate change,” Elder said.