Research & Education

Opalized dinosaur fossil studied using 3D printing technology

Paleontologists at Flinders University have used micro-CT scanning and 3D printing to look inside an unusual 100-million-year-old dinosaur fossil

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According to Cosmos magazine, paleontologists at Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia, have used cutting-edge micro-CT scanning and 3D printing technology to look inside an unusual 100-million-year-old opalized dinosaur fossil.

In a rare find, collectors unearthed fossils of a small dinosaur that had opalized. They believe it might be a new species of Australian dinosaur. The dinosaur was a small bipedal herbivore called a ‘hypsilophodont’. The fossils were found in the opal mining town of Lightning Ridge, in outback New South Wales, and were recovered and rescued for scientific study in 2019.

Paleontologists at Adelaide’s Flinders University have used micro-CT scanning and 3D printing technology to study an opalized dinosaur fossil
Lead palaeontologist, Associate Professor Paul Willis mounts specimens in stacks of polystyrene ahead of scanning. Credit: Palaeo Pictures.

A collaboration between the Australian Opal Centre at Lightning Ridge, and the Palaeo Pictures documentary team, led by Paul Willis, associate professor at Flinders University, will see the dinosaur reconstructed from the opalized fossils.

Paleontologists at Adelaide’s Flinders University have used micro-CT scanning and 3D printing technology to study an opalized dinosaur fossil
The bones are preserved as common opal, or potch, and are mostly embedded within a white sandstone. Credit: Palaeo Pictures.

Opals are formed when silicon dioxide dissolved in water trickles through the Earth until it reaches cavities in rocks. Once the water evaporates, a silica deposit is left behind. Sometimes, the cavities in which opals form are there because a living thing was buried in sand or clay before it hardened into stone. The opal forms in the mold leaving behind the fossil replica of the creature.

Fossils found at Lightning Ridge are often colorless and “valueless” (monetarily speaking) potch. But, occasionally, the fossils are composed of precious opal – even the treasured black opal – and are very high in value. But Willis insists that all fossil specimens are “priceless” to science.

His team has begun using the latest imaging technology to learn more about the animal that left the impressions behind. “We’re using the Flinders CT Scanning Facility at Tonsley to look inside lumps of rock that contain the remains of a small dinosaur,” said Willis.

The scans show the dinosaur fossil preserved in exquisite detail. “Not only do the scans allow us to better understand exactly what we have as a dinosaur skeleton, they will be an invaluable aid to the next stage of studying this specimen, by removing the surrounding rock,” continued Willis. “Prior to using scans on specimens like this, the removal of surrounding rock was very much a case of ‘doing it blind’, feeling our way in to reveal the bones. Now we can do that with more confidence because we know where the rock stops and the bone starts.”

Paleontologists at Adelaide’s Flinders University have used micro-CT scanning and 3D printing technology to study an opalized dinosaur fossil
On the right is the opal fossil still in the rock and on the left is a 3D print of the fossil generated from the CT scans. Credit: Palaeo Pictures.

Around 20% of the opalized dinosaur fossil specimens have been scanned so far. Once the rest are processed, the team will work on a detailed study of the skeleton and produce, using 3D printing, an as complete as possible reconstruction from the puzzle pieces.

The paleontologists hope the reconstruction will reveal if this is indeed a new species of dinosaur, and will then try to give “life” back to the fossils by learning about how the animal lived and died.

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