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Scientists revive ancient spider in stunning 3D detail

posted 24 May 2011, 09:44 by Mpelembe   [ updated 24 May 2011, 09:47 ]

CT scanning has allowed scientists to identify and recreate in stunning three-dimensional detail, an ancient spider trapped in amber for 50 million years. The experiment not only allowed the team to positively identify the species as a "giant crab spider" but opens up new possibilities for further discoveries using CT - or Computer Tomography - scanning.

The name might be misleading - the giant crab spider actually measures just a few millimetres across - but its presence in Berlin's Natural History Museum is causing a stir.

The spider has been here unrecognised for 150 years but now, thanks to the latest hi-tech scanning technique, scientists have been able to identify it.

The amber specimen had darkened so much over the years that it was almost impossible to see the precious fossil inside even under the microscope, until palaeontologist and spider expert Dr Jason Dunlop and his international team revealed its identity.

"I talked to some colleagues of mine in Manchester in England and they have a machine, which do what's called a CT scan. This is very similar to the medical scans you can get in hospital today and it basically makes a series of x-rays going around the specimen and from that we can reconstruct a three-dimensional computer model," Dunlop said.

"The big news is that we can do this, that we can take very, very old pieces of amber even if it looks like a very bad specimen that you can hardly see anything, you can still get very, very detailed information from it. And because of that information we can say say that this fossil spider belongs to the same genus as a spider you can find today living in East Asia or Africa."

The giant crab spider is more commonly known as the huntsman spider. The example in the museum is an ancient relative of the species that today is found mainly in tropical and semi-tropical regions. The spider has eight eyes and a grey or brown colouring. It uses venom to demobilise its prey but its bite is not deadly to humans. The spider feeds mainly on insects using jaws that the scan reveals in minute detail.

According to Dunlop the scanning method opens great possibilities in the field of palaeontology.

"You can scan all sorts of things now from dinosaur brain cases through to little creepy crawlies in amber. And in all of these cases it gives you a three-dimensional view of what the animal was really like back then," Dunlop explained.

In the case of the giant crab spider the three-dimensional scan allowed the team to analyse the form, structure and living conditions of the animal even though it was almost impossible to see it with the usual microscopic methods.

"And that's a huge advance on what we used to able to do in the past when most fossils was simply squashed flat against the rock," Dunlop said.

More than a thousand spider fossils have been described, with many of them preserved in amber.