By Timothy Cox
COLDWATER — A Wright State University-Lake Campus professor is trying to settle a 100-year-old geologic controversy using a piece of Mercer County Community Hospital’s newest equipment.
Chuck Ciampaglio, an assistant geology professor at the Lake Campus, used the hospital’s new CT scanner to look inside fossils he unearthed last summer in northwestern Georgia.
The fossil formations, called cobbles, were theorized by Charles Walcott, a famous geologist, to be jellyfish fossils. Later in the 20th century, though, a German geologist decided the fossils were the remnants of some prehistoric worm’s burrowing. Ciampaglio is hoping the scans done Tuesday will lead to the truth. No matter if the fossils are jellyfish, worm burrows or the remnants of some other creature, Ciampaglio said they represent some of the earliest forms of life on earth. The fossils are more than 500 million years old from the Cambrian period, he said.
“We’re talking about the dawn of life as we know it,” he said.
The hospital’s scanner gave Ciampaglio and a couple of his students a rare opportunity to look at razor-thin sections of the rock on a computer screen. Traditionally, scientists would physically polish and slice a rock into sections to examine its internal structure. With the CT scanner, the rock can be viewed in cross-section slices just one millimeter thick without actually cutting into the fossil.
As the first images came out of the new CT scanner, Ciampaglio was obviously excited.
“I think Walcott would be happy,” he said, looking at the computer-generated images.
The images did not look like much to casual observers, but to Ciampaglio, the pictures told a clear story. There were obvious differences in density inside the fossil, indicating the past presence of some sort of structure, leading Ciampaglio to surmise that Walcott was probably correct.
“This is so much more than I expected,” Ciampaglio said, looking through the images.
Despite initial indications that the cobbles represent a jellyfish or some other form of life and not a prehistoric worm tunnel, Ciampaglio cautioned that much work remains to be done. The CT images must be further interpreted and analyzed, he said.
“There is still a lot of historical legwork that has to be done,” Ciampaglio said. “But it does appear to be the fossilization of an animal.”
The GE Lightspeed CT Scan is among the best available scanners, hospital public relations manager Ken Obringer said. CT scans help doctors diagnose disease, view internal abnormalities and assess the extent of internal trauma. Using the scanner on fossils may have been a first.
“This is the first time that I know of that anything like this has been attempted — at least in this area,” Obringer said. “And we’re excited to introduce to the public what is touted to be the latest and greatest scanner on the market today.”
Ciampaglio said scanners have been used in the past to look at dinosaur skulls, but said he knows of no attempts to look inside fossilized rocks as was done Tuesday.