Oddly Satisfying Time-Lapse Video Slowly Reveals a Fossilized Squid
In an oddly soothing Instagram video, geology Ph.D. student Fiann Smithwick extracts the remains of a hundred-million-year-old creature from a rock. Smithwick, who studies at the University of Bristol, walks viewers through the delicate process in this seriously mesmerizing video. Overall, the process can usually take hours, but Smithwick, armed with his pneumatic air pen and a time-lapse video, breezes through it in a matter of seconds.
In the video, Smithwick is working on a fossilized Asteroceras obtusum — a type of ammonite, a sea-dwelling carnivorous squid that lived during the Sinemurian period, 190-199 million years ago.
Also called “obtuse star ammonites,” these carnivorous squid had soft bodies but lived in hard shells. This feature made them great candidates for the process of fossilization, defined as when a creature’s original components of replaced by minerals from the rock sediment after it dies. The challenge for a paleontologist is to carefully separate the fossil from the surrounding rock, without doing damage.
Ammonites are fairly common fossils, but this particular specimen’s large size makes it unique. Smithwick tells Inverse that it came from Charmouth, Dorset, in the UK. He salvaged it from a cliff after a heavy rain and took it back to the lab where he began the tedious process:
“I split part of the rock open which revealed the edge of the shell. I had no idea that the ammonite was inside,” he says. “It was completely hidden in the rock with no evidence of it on the outside, but these rocks are known for good fossils so are always worth splitting. Then I had to get it off the beach and home, which was difficult as it weighed in excess of 60 kg!” — that’s over 130 pounds.
After revealing the edge of the shell and removing the larger sections of rock with a hammer and chisel, Smithwick used a pneumatic pen — a tiny, air-powered drill — to grind the limestone rock matrix away from the inner cavities of the ammonite’s shell. To do this, he holds the pen millimeters from the fossil, but is careful not to actually touch it, as this could spell disaster:
“The pen will destroy the fossil just as easily as it destroys the rock. In fact in many cases more so as the fossils can be softer tha the surrounding rock,” he explains. “So you need to stop the pen as close to the shell as possible to remove the most rock but not damage the fossil. The damage can range from a small chip or scratch to a complete loss of an important feature if you’re not careful.”
When he’s complete, the final product reveals the ammonite’s inner shell in elaborate detail. Smithwick notes that the whole process took him 30 hours, though the time-lapse shows it happening over the course of 49 seconds.