The remains of a 410-million-year-old arachnid were so well preserved in a thin slice of rock -- unearthed in Scotland, near the Aberdeenshire town of Rhynie -- researchers from the University of Manchester in England were able to observe the creature's legs and joints in remarkable detail.
The researchers compared their observations to modern spiders to better understand how the ancient arachnid -- one of the first predatory creatures to emerge from the sea and take to land -- might have moved.
Next, the paleontologists uploaded their findings onto an open-source computer graphics program called Blender. Using the program they were able to create a virtual model and video demonstrating how the predator may have walked and hunted.
"For me, what's really exciting here is that scientists themselves can make these animations now, without needing the technical wizardry -- and immense costs -- of a Jurassic Park-style film," said Jason Dunlop, a curator at the Berlin's Museum für Naturkunde. "When I started working on fossil arachnids we were happy if we could manage a sketch of what they used to look like; now we can view them running across our computer screens."
The scientists say these trigonotarbid specimens were only a few millimeters long, but could easily run and hop atop helpless flightless insects.
"When it comes to early life on land, long before our ancestors came out of the sea, these early arachnids were top dog of the food chain," added Russell Garwood, a palaeontologist in the University of Manchester.
Garwood and Dunlop's work is detailed in the latest issue of the Journal of Paleontology -- part of a group of papers on three-dimensional visualizations of fossils.