Planet Earth

76. Digital Fossils Bring Dinos to Life

Scanning and 3-D printing allow paleontologists to study fossils in whole new ways.

By Adam HadhazyJan 29, 2013 12:40 PM
fossil-scanning.jpg
A 3-D laser scanner analyzes a fossilized humerus of the dinosaur Paralititan. | Courtesy Drexel University

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Great paleontology finds like Pegomastax can be overlooked because fossils are so cumbersome and time-consuming to study. Last year, a Drexel University team led by Ken Lacovara started working on a solution.

Taking advantage of the plummeting price of scanners and 3-D printers, they are digitizing dinosaur remains and making copies of key elements. They have already logged most bones from a newly discovered, 60-ton sauropod, a relative of Diplodocus. “They’re the biggest creatures to ever walk the land, so they’re very difficult to work with,” Lacovara says. “A femur can weigh 1,200 pounds.”

Now that the bones exist in digital form, Lacovara plans to link them up virtually to test how the sauropod once moved. He also printed its forelimbs at one-tenth scale so he can connect the bones in different ways. The configuration that is the most energy-efficient is most likely to represent an accurate model. In a few years, the paleontologists intend to assemble an entire skeleton into a realistic one-tenth-scale robot, complete with artificial muscles and tendons. “This is a powerful way to see how these ancient creatures worked,” Lacovara says.

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