Women on Sketchfab: Emily Mitchell

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I am a palaeontologist at the University of Cambridge working on the oldest animal communities, which are found in the Ediacaran time period. I use 3D scanning to capture entire fossil surfaces in order to investigate them using complex statistics.

I started off life as a mathematician and physicist before becoming interested in the origins of animals and their ecosystems. The oldest known animals are found in the Ediacaran time period, around 600 million years ago. These Ediacaran organisms look unlike anything else either alive today or elsewhere in the fossil record, making it difficult to resolve their basic biology, such as how they relate to modern animals.


The in-situ preservation of thousands of these immobile organisms across hundreds of rock surfaces provides a near-census record of these first macro-organism communities. My research utilises complex spatial statistical techniques and theoretical models to extract biological and ecological information from fossil spatial patterns.

The oldest of these Ediacaran fossil communities are only found in Newfoundland, Canada and Charnwood Forest, UK. These rock surfaces contain thousands of fossils over sometimes hundreds of square meters. However, correctly mapping all of these fossil specimens is difficult because the fossils are very shallow in the rock surface, so that they can only been seen on clear weather days, which are rare in foggy Newfoundland, for a 30 minute slot only. As such, photomontages and/or photogrammetry are not a reliable way to capture these fossil communities.

My analyses require large datasets,which I record from these field sites using a laser scanner to create high-resolution 3D maps, which is why I became interested in 3D imaging.

My work is particularly unusual within the 3D world because my fossils are found on sea cliffs in Newfoundland on large rock surfaces, so all scanning occurs outside, often miles from the nearest road. Due to the protected nature of many of my fossil sites, which are SSSI, UNESCO World Heritage and UNESCO aspiring Geoparks, the kit needs to be taken out in person, not using vehicles. I take a team with me to carry the 150 kg worth of equipment – tripods, scanners, generators and computers – out to the sites.

I also need to have very high resolution data – resolution less than 100 microns means that the fossil details are not captured. As a result I use a mixture of LiDAR to get the large-scale features of the rock-surfaces, then stitch high-resolution scans made using a Faro ScanArm, which takes around 1 hour per square meter. These methods mean that I can accurately capture thousands of fossils in 3D digital maps. My work focuses on using spatial statistics to reconstruct the biology and ecology of these Ediacaran organisms, while colleagues use my data for research into the taxonomy of the fossils and the geology.

This model is taken from a laser-scan of “Seliacher’s Corner” of the E surface, Mistaken Point, Newfoundland. This surface is a UNESCO World Heritage site because it contains some of the oldest known animals in the evolution of life on Earth. It shows some Charniodiscus, Fractofusus, Beothukis and Thectardis fossils. These organisms are unique to the Ediacaran time period, and all lived in deep-water, well below where light could get to. Therefore, while they look superficially like plants, we know they could not have been photosynthetic, instead living off plankton and dissolved organic carbon in the water. This model is a very small portion of the whole surface – approximately 1/240 of the whole surface scanned. By marking up each fossil in turn, then looking at how the density of fossils changes over the surface using spatial statistics I can work out information such as how the organisms reproduced and interacted with each other and their environment.

Why Sketchfab?

Sketchfab is brilliant for sharing the fossil models with people across continents. They are hard to photograph well, so being able to fit the perfect light to the models enables me to bring out their best features.


About the author

Emily Mitchell

Palaeontologist at the University of Cambridge

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