Using the latest computer imaging technology, scientists have produced pictures of a 49-million year spider that had been hidden in dark amber.

The breakthrough is particularly revelatory since the spider — a Huntsman spider — is rarely caught in tree resin due to its strength and speed.

Insects, arachnids and other small creatures are commonly caught in tree resin which then becomes amber. While amber fossilizes the unlucky critter, it provides scientists with a look at species at different points in history.

Computer image of fossil spiderThe challenge, however, comes from the amber itself which darkens over time as it interacts with oxygen. This makes it increasingly difficult to see creatures trapped in amber, minimizing their uses in research.

To work around nature, scientists have started using 3-D X-ray imagers and other video-making technologies to see inside the amber, and then get a better look at the fossilized remains inside.

"Normally such fossils are really hard to detect because the contrast against the amber is low," says professor Philip J. Withers, a researcher from the University of Manchester in England who established the imaging facility that developed the images of the spider and was involved in the study. "But with phase contrast imaging the spiders really jump out at you in 3-D."

The method of computed tomography will provide useful in the future, according to David Penney, another University of Manchester researcher who was also involved in the study.

"The research is particularly exciting because our results show that this method works and that other scientifically important specimens in historical pieces of darkened amber can be investigated and compared to their living relatives in the same way," Penney said.

The findings were reported in the German science journal Naturwissenschaften.

See the video below for a detailed look at the Huntsman spider: