Science News magazine recently published an interesting article about how paleontologists are using Reality Computing technologies to virtually dissect, reanimate, and 3D print extinct creatures captured in fossils.
In the past, the only way to create a physical 3D model of a fossil was to grind down the fossil in very thin sections, photograph each slice, and then use those photographs to create a 3D wax model of the original fossil. Besides being incredibly tedious, this method destroyed the original fossil.
In the age of CT scanning, computerized 3D modeling, and additive printing, paleontologists can now digitally capture the existing fossil in microscopic detail and move that reality data into modeling software for visualization and analysis. To create a physical replica of the creature, the virtual fossil model can then be 3D printed.
CT scanners produce extremely detailed images of the inside of the fossil without destroying it. This nondestructive method of reality capture is particularly important for some fields of paleontology where fossils are rare and scientific research sometimes stems from a single fossil. This ability to see inside the fossil helps paleontologists understand the evolution of the organism and its relationship to modern organisms.
For example, the Science News article describes how Reality Computing was used to reanimate the fossil of a 410-million-year-old trigonotarbid—an extinct group of arachnids. Although they were only the size of the head of a pin, trigonotarbids were the first land predators. In this case, the fossil was so similar to the rock around it that 3D scanning was not possible. Instead, researchers used micron-thin sections of a fossil to develop 3D ‘maps’ of the fossil. This data was exported to computer software to model and animate the creature’s movement—helping researchers investigate how its legs evolved to walk on land.
Another interesting example in the article describes how CT imaging and modeling from a three-million-year-old fossil of an extinct porpoise called Semirostrum uncovered sensory organs in its unusually long lower jaw. This adaptation may have been used to sense prey as it rooted through sediment on the seafloor. Perhaps the Semirostrum’s digital model will help scientists understand why it went extinct and how modern-day porpoises (who also root through sediment to find food) do this without the aid of those extra sensory organs.
Digital capture, computation, and creation—the three legs of Reality Computing—are central to this field of virtual paleontology. If you have a subscription to Science News, click here for the full article. Or click here for a BBC article about the trigonotarbid research.