Scottish fossil dig unearths ‘Rosetta Stone’ for understanding ancient past
Researchers from the University of Edinburgh analysed the 400-million-year-old cache and found that the fossils were better preserved than anticipated.
The fossils have been held by National Museums Scotland and the Universities of Aberdeen and Oxford prior to this ground-breaking study.
The fossils were found in 1912 in Rhynie, Aberdeenshire and are known as the Rhynie chert.
The new research discovered that they contain traces of various organisms both well-known and mysterious.
It is hoped that the chemical codes retrieved can help them uncover the identity of little-known life forms from the ancient past, just as the Rosetta Stone helped Egyptologists translate hieroglyphics. The fossils were scanned to produce non-destructive imaging data, which was combined with machine learning to uncover more about the less-well-preserved samples.
They did this through a method called FTIR spectroscopy – in which infrared light is used to collect high-resolution data.
Since they knew what most of the organisms present in the fossils were, the team was able to reliably distinguish between fingerprints of groups such as bacteria and fungi.
They used these fingerprints to distinguish between the more mysterious organisms, including two specimens of an enigmatic group of creatures “nematophyte”.
Before the recent findings, there was uncertainty in the scientific community over whether these creatures were fungi or algae.
The new research shows they were less likely to be fungi than originally thought.
Dr Sean McMahon, chancellor’s fellow from the University of Edinburgh’s School of Physics and Astronomy and School of GeoSciences, said: “We have shown how a quick, non-invasive method can be used to discriminate between different lifeforms, and this opens a unique window on the diversity of early life on Earth.”
FTIR spectroscopy is revolutionary for studying fossils; with little to no damage to be done to the sample, it allows for future research. Scotland is rich with these fossils, and more research is being carried out.
Dr Corentin Loron, Royal Society Newton international fellow from the University of Edinburgh’s School of Physics and Astronomy, said: “Our work highlights the unique scientific importance of some of Scotland’s spectacular natural heritage and provides us with a tool for studying life in trickier, more ambiguous remnants.”