Using light to describe the ancient world

Microstructure of bone – Matthieu Lebon and colleagues present spectroscopic maps of diagenetic alteration at this fine scale

Imagine a world where you can analyse a fossil as you find it, learning what an ancient creature ate and what it’s world was like, all while sitting at its final resting place. As far fetched as that sounds, we are actually stepping closer and closer towards this point. An interesting step along this path was recently presented by Matthieu Lebon and colleagues in the Journal of Analytical Atomic Spectrometry. One of the battles with analysing a sample without first scrubbing it down is knowing where to sample, and understanding how samples change from place to place. Lebon and colleagues used Fourier Transform Infrared spectroscopy to produce fine scale chemical maps from the surfaces of fossil bones. One type of map shows the intensity of a spectral band attributed to carbonate normalised against phosphate, and hence reflects the distribution of carbonate: carbonate is a biological component of bone, but is also a near ubiquitous diagenetic gremlin that can potentially confound isotopic studies. Maps from a 15 thousand year old bone showed that carbonate had a close relationship with collagen, suggesting that the ion was an original, biogenic component. In contrast, maps from a 60 thousand year old bone showed that carbonate was centered in the most porous part of the bone, telling us that it had formed while that vile counterpart to diagenesis – groundwater – was flowing through the bone. The fine scale mapping approach may help us target the most immaculately preserved regions of fossil bone if we ever have the chance to sample on such a fine scale. Which, of course, is what our In-The-Field-Dinosaur-Analyser (ITFDA) will eventually be able to do.

Lebon M, Müller K, Bahain J-J, Fröhlich, Falguères C, Bertrand L, Sandt C, Reiche I. 2001. Imaging fossil bone alterations at the microscale by SR-FTIR microspectroscopy. Journal of Analytical Atomic Spectrometry 26: 922-929.

Image courtesy of the Department of Histology, Jagiellonian University Medical College, and sourced from Wikimedia Commons


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