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The development of virtual Paleontology

An international study led by Unifi, published in Frontiers in Earth Science

The world of algorithms and that of paleontology may seem two universes far apart. The exact opposite is demonstrated by an international research project that appeared in Frontiers in Earth Science, led by the University of Florence. Some complex algorithms have allowed scholars to repair original fossil samples, often deformed by fossilization processes, and obtain new 3D finds, reconstructing the original morphology.

The correction, technically called “retrodeformation”, was possible thanks to the comparison of the object of study - a very deformed fossil of Equus stenonis, a zebra-like equid that lived in Europe in the Villafranchian about 2 million years ago - with other samples non-deformed reference, belonging to the same species of the finding under examination. The research marks a new method (“Target Deformation”) for virtual retrodeformation, so far practiced only with 3D graphics programs and without a comparison target (“Target Deformation of the Equus stenonis Holotype Skull: A Virtual Reconstruction” doi: 10.3389/feart.2020.00247).

The result, published with open access, is the result of an international team coordinated by Omar Cirilli, PhD student of the Earth Science Department of the Universities of Florence and Pisa, and was created in collaboration with researchers from the Department of Earth Sciences of the University Federico II of Naples, the University of York and the John Moores University of Liverpool, and with the contribution of Raymond Louis Bernor of Howard University and of the Smithsonian Natural History Museum (Washington DC, USA), as well as researchers of the Georgian National Museum (Tbilisi, Georgia).

“The fossil studied,” explains Omar Cirilli, Unifi author together with Lorenzo Rook, professor of Paleontology and paleoecology, “is the holotype skull of Equus stenonis, preserved in the collections of the Museum of Geology and Paleontology of the Museum System of the University of Florence, the finding on which the Florentine paleontologist Igino Cocchi established the species in 1867. To retro deform it virtually we used two incomplete skulls from the sites of the Lower Pleistocene of Olivola (Italy) and Dmanisi (Georgia) as reference specimens. The two findings were virtually assembled through reference points, on which the Equus stenonis type skull was corrected, allowing to reconstruct its original morphology. Subsequent comparative analyzes with other findings of the same species have shown that the shape of the final model is completely consistent with the variability of the species itself.

“Paleontologists often face the classic dilemma of whether to insert or exclude some finds from their studies, especially for the degree of deformations they present. This study, combined with previous ones published by some authors involved in this work (Marina Melchionna, Antonio Profico and Pasquale Raia), allows the opening of a new frontier in virtual Paleontology, reconstructing the original morphology of deformed fossils, and allowing old bones to tell new stories. Just like in the Japanese art of Kintsugi, where liquid gold and silver are used by expert craftsmen to repair broken objects, giving them new life,” commented Cirilli.

22 July 2020
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