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Freed to Fly Again

Through CT scans that can show sub-millimeter details, an imprisoned fossil reveals its secrets

Pat Shipman

As professionals who study the past, paleontologists "read" the physical remains or traces of long-gone creatures and try to recreate their living forms. We ask how long-extinct species lived and moved, what habitats sheltered their young, what they ate, how they grew. We ponder what evolutionary pressures might have shaped the body or behavior of some species and, in some cases, driven it to extinction. But many times, the clues left behind are too scant to allow us to answer such questions with surety. How useful it would be to step into a time machine and go back to answer all our questions!

Artist%u2019s%20reconstruction%20of%20MecistotrachelosClick to Enlarge ImageTime machines have been part of our cultural consciousness since at least 1895, when H. G. Wells launched the discussion with his novel The Time Machine. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle took up the idea of visiting the ancient past in the 1912 novel Lost World. I often wonder how many paleontologists and paleoanthropologists were influenced, as I was, by reading these works when they were children.

Wells's book was published around the time x rays were discovered; this demonstration of uncanny powers unsettled and amazed scientists and the public. It's possible that it even helped inspire Wells's fiction. Fittingly, x rays are now becoming true time machines, peering through rocks and time as easily as they look through skin and flesh.

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