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Paleontologists Bake Synthetic Fossils That Look Like The Real Thing

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Paleontologists have found a way to accelerate the fossilization process in the laboratory. The method can offer new insights into how things fossilize and may be useful for comparison with real fossils.

Fossilization Process

The fossilization process often takes places over thousands, if not millions of years. Evan Saitta, a paleontologist with the Field Museum and the University of Bristol, and colleagues, however, managed to speed up geologic time using a method they call "sediment-encased maturation."

The process, which the scientists reported in the journal Paleontology, involves pressing modern bird, lizard, or plant samples into clay tablets using hydraulic press.

The researchers placed the specimen into tablets, sealed these in metal tube, and baked them in an oven at 410 degrees Fahrenheit and 3,500 psi. The pressure is comparable to that of a professional-grade power washer and roughly the same as the pressure of rocks in the shallows parts of the Earth's crust where fossils are often found.

"In this procedure, porous sediment allows maturation breakdown products to escape into the sediment and maturation chamber, while recalcitrant, immobile components are contained, more closely mimicking the natural conditions of fossilization," the researchers described the procedure in their study, which was published on July 25.

Synthetic Fossils That Look And Act Like The Real Thing

After 24 hours, the researchers yielded what appear and act like a real fossils. Saitta said there were dark films on the skin and scales, and the bones have browned.

"The sediment acts as a filter allowing unstable molecules to escape from the sample, revealing browned, flattened bones surrounded by dark, organic films where soft tissues once were," Saitta said. "These results closely resemble exceptional fossils, not just visually, but also microscopically as revealed using a scanning electron microscope."

Method To Shed More Light On Fossilization Process And Real Fossils

The researchers said that the method they used can be useful in comparing the kinds of materials that can survive fossilization. It can also help identify the structures present in actual fossils and provide a better understanding of how soft tissues such as the skin respond to fossilization.

Testing different variables using the process can also help identify the temperature of gases that contribute to the formation of real-life fossils.

"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," Saitta said.

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