A team of paleontologists believe they have discovered a way to quickly create fossils, technology that could potentially lead to new research on how the Earth preserves different organisms over time.
The study of fossils is known as taphonomy, and it has been around since the 1950’s. While the process is a key part of paleontology, it is used across various scientific fields to better understand the way organisms fossilize.
Such information is important because it sheds light on what animals are over-represented in the fossil record, and helps researchers better understand larger trends like time scales and climate change.
“Basically it’s about the process of death and disintegration,” said Ronald Martin, a paleontologist at the University of Delaware who was not involved in the study, according to Popular Science.
To gain insight into that process, scientists often find ways to create their own fossils. That includes a 1993 project where a team buried marine species beneath the Gulf of Mexico and monitored their decay over time.
However, while such experiments provide results, they are also greatly limited. Not only do most of them occur within closed containers that make it hard to see what is going on, they also take place away from the influence of outside factors like predators or earthquakes.
Not to mention they take a long, long time to make. To fix those problems, a group of international researchers came up with a way to “bake” fossils by putting the work of tens of thousands of years into a single day.
Known as sediment-encased maturation, the method works by pressing samples into clay tablets and then baking them at 3500 psi. That process — which has been tested on feathers, lizards, and leaves — creates samples that both look and act like real fossils.
That is significant because scientists believe they may be able to use the maturation to study what materials are able to survive fossilization. It may also identify structures within fossils and show what temperatures or gases contributed to them.
“Our experimental method is like a cheat sheet,” said lead author Evan Saitta, a researcher at the University of Bristol, in a statement. “If we use this to find out what kinds of biomolecules can withstand the pressure and heat of fossilization, then we know what to look for in real fossils.”
The study was published in the journal Paleontology.