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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 April 2017

Mark Sutton
Department of Earth Sciences and Engineering, Imperial College London, London SW7 2BP, UK 〈〉
Imran Rahman
Oxford University Museum of Natural History, Oxford OX1 3PW, UK 〈〉
Russell Garwood
School of Earth, Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences, The University of Manchester, Manchester, M13 9PL, UK 〈〉
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Virtual paleontology is the study of fossils through three-dimensional digital visualizations; it represents a powerful and well-established set of tools for the analysis and dissemination of fossil data. Techniques are divisible into tomographic (i.e., slice-based) and surface-based types. Tomography has a long predigital history, but the recent explosion of virtual paleontology has resulted primarily from developments in X-ray computed tomography (CT), and of surface-based technologies (e.g., laser scanning). Destructive tomographic methods include forms of physical-optical tomography (e.g., serial grinding); these are powerful but problematic techniques. Focused Ion Beam (FIB) tomography is a modern alternative for microfossils; it is also destructive but is capable of extremely high resolutions. Nondestructive tomographic methods include the many forms of CT, which are the most widely used data-capture techniques at present, but are not universally applicable. Where CT is inappropriate, other nondestructive technologies (e.g., neutron tomography, magnetic resonance imaging, optical tomography) can prove suitable. Surface-based methods provide portable and convenient data capture for surface topography and texture, and might be appropriate when internal morphology is not of interest; technologies include laser scanning, photogrammetry, and mechanical digitization. Reconstruction methods that produce visualizations from raw data are many and various; selection of an appropriate workflow will depend on many factors, but is an important consideration that should be addressed prior to any study. The vast majority of three-dimensional fossils can now be studied using some form of virtual paleontology, and barriers to broader adaptation are being eroded. Technical issues regarding data sharing remain problematic. Technological developments continue; those promising tomographic recovery of compositional data are of particular relevance to paleontology.

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Copyright © 2017, The Paleontological Society 

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