3D Scanning SevicesResearch & Education

Making the world’s rarest dinosaur fossils accessible with scanning and 3D printing

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Fossils of some of the planet’s oldest known dinosaurs are found in Africa, and now, thanks to the work of dedicated excavators and state-of-the-art technologies like 3D scanning and 3D printing, they are being shared across the globe to advance paleontology research.

Sterling Nesbitt and Christopher Griffin, two paleotologists from Virginia Tech’s Department of Geosciences, are showing the value of using 3D scanning and printing in their field. The pair, who have worked in Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Zambia and Madagascar to excavate rare dinosaur fossils, are sharing their finds with the world using digital technologies.

In one case, the pair uncovered fossilized bones of an unnamed dinosaur, which was found to be an ancestor of long-necked dinosaurs. These fossils were carefully removed from the earth and cleaned, using a precise and delicate process.

Dinosaur fossils 3D scanning
Sterling Nesbitt and Max Ofsa (Photo: Ray Meese | Virginia Tech)

“Most of the bones are partially covered with a thin layer of rock,” Griffin explained. “We use an air-powered needle that hums as it vibrates back and forth under a microscope and delicately knocks off the prehistoric rock without damaging the bone.”

Once the bones are clean, they are carefully 3D scanned using high-resolution scanners by University Libraries’ 3D Design Studio. The digital models captured from the 3D scans can then be shared broadly with researchers around the globe and even 3D printed for more tactile investigation.

Within paleontology, the process is somewhat revolutionary. 3D scanning is a far less invasive reproduction technique than casting and molding, meaning that the original fossils can be more easily protected and conserved. Not to mention that the digital models themselves offer another form of conservation and archiving.

Dinosaur fossils 3D scanning
Paleontologist Christopher Griffin in Zimbabwe (Photo: Christopher Griffin | Virginia Tech)

3D scanning also democratizes research efforts, as paleontologists no longer have to travel to the site of the fossils to research them—they can simply access their detailed 3D models online. Museums and educational institutions can also choose to 3D print the models for displays or demonstrations.

“Being able to broadly and quickly apply these resources, 3D scanning has great implications in how we share information,” said Max Ofka, the manager of 3D Design Studio. “We are able to offer the nuance and detail of real-world objects in a digital realm.”

“Our philosophy is that all these bones don’t belong to anyone,” added Nesbitt. “This is all our equal history. Very few people ever get to see these bones in person. The University Libraries’ scanners are so good with extremely high resolution. This is the next best thing to holding the bone in your hand. This is as close as you can get to going to Zimbabwe yourself.” 

3D scanning and printing also streamline fossil reproduction. According to the Virginia Tech paleontologists, bones can be scanned in as little as 20 minutes and reproduced using 3D printing in under two days. Using riskier casting and molding techniques, it would typically take about a week to create a fossil reproduction.

Dinosaur fossils 3D scanning
Artist rendering of the Suskityrannus hazelae (Image: Andrey Atuchin | Virginia Tech)

Nesbitt and Griffin’s work has been hugely influential in the paleontology field. With a focus on the earliest known dinosaurs and reptiles, the pair have played an important role in the discovery that dinosaurs were actually very small at first. In one case, Nesbitt uncovered the partial skull of a Suskityrannus hazelae, one of the smallest known relatives of the infamous T-Rex. The partial skull fossil was 3D scanned by the University Libraries 3D Design Studio using CT technology, which allowed them to print the middle of the skull cavity—recreating the shape of the dinosaur’s brain.

“What we are scanning and printing, no one else has access to it. We have been involved in each step of the process,” said Griffin. “We scouted locations, traveled there, met with local museums and collaborators, hunted for bones, found the bones, dug them out of the ground, brought them back, cleaned them, scanned them, printed them, and published them. We are physically doing every part of the process.” 

Many of the fossils uncovered and 3D scanned by the paleontologists and the 3D Design Studio are accessible through the University Libraries. 3D printed replicas of the dinosaur bones can be seen at the Virginia Tech Geosciences Museum and the Field Museum in Chicago at its Evolving Planet exhibition.

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Tess Boissonneault

Tess Boissonneault is a Montreal-based content writer and editor with five years of experience covering the additive manufacturing world. She has a particular interest in amplifying the voices of women working within the industry and is an avid follower of the ever-evolving AM sector. Tess holds a master's degree in Media Studies from the University of Amsterdam.

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