Doing Morphometrics

Doing morphometics in the laboratory is a two step process: measuring the fossil to get data and then analyzing the data.

How we measure

In the lab, measurements are made using very precise tools designed for the task. We usually borrow tools used in other fields. Engineers and tool makers use a device called a "micrometer" to make precise measurements of things, and the same tool can be found in the paleontologists toolkit. A micrometer is a simple guage with two jaws that can measure things very precisely. Measuring something to a tenth of a millimeter is very common.

[ using a micrometer ]
A micrometer in use.
The dial indicates the size.

For very small objects (we call them microfossils), even these delicate tools are too crude. Such small objects are often measured from pictures, and that's what we'll be using. To use a picture, you need some sort of scale in the image. In cases where we aren't using a lot of magnification, we'll include in the picture something whose size is precisely known - the edge of a ruler, prehaps. With very high powered microscopes, we carefully calculate just how much the magnification we're using to see the fossil. In both cases, we use the magnification to scale our measurements. If we measure something as 2 cm on the image, and the magnification is 100x, then the thing we've measured is 2 cm / 100x, or 0.02 cm (on the order of 1/100 of an inch).


Radiolarians at high magnigication.
Notice the small white bar, a scale of 35 micrometers.

In our examples, we'll use the method where we know the magnification. Don't worry: the computer handles all the math.

Analyzing the data

The analysis of the data can be quite simple, or very complex. At it's simplest, the data is used to understand one species by looking at patterns in the data. This can be done with a simple plot, or by powerful statistical techniques. The method you use depends entirely on what question you're asking.

Complex analysis of the data involves more data, and even more powerful techniques. Along with the data you have collected on the shape of the fossils, you also include other data, such as:

Some of the most important research in paleontology using techiniques no one has ever used before to look into questions no one has ever asked before. It's very common that someone comes up with a new question that no one thought could be answered, but a new technique provides answers.