According to Kenneth Lacovara, a professor at the College of Arts and Sciences at Drexel University, the technology used in paleontology has been more or less the same for the last 150 years. “We use shovels and pickaxes and burlap and plaster. It hasn't changed -- until right now.”
With the help of 3D modeling, everything from fossil extraction to hypothesis testing has begun to change for paleontologists.
Scale Models and Future Robots
Dr. Lacovara is currently collaborating with Dr. James Tangorra of the College of Engineering, to 3D print scale models of fossil dinosaur bones. Aside from the obvious use of fossil models for museum displays and as educational tools, they can also help test hypotheses about dinosaur movement and behavior.
Despite the classic images Jurassic Park and other media have put in our heads about how dinosaurs look and act, scientists actually know very little about the posture, movement and reproduction of the long-extinct species.
Lacovara and Tangorra have plans to develop functioning robotic models of Paralititan stromeri, the largest sauropod known today, that Lacovara discovered in Egypt about 15 years ago. The models will be complete with artificial muscles, allowing the researchers to test how sauropods cope with environmental stressors.
3D Printing is a revolutionary solution for these types of questions, since arranging and manipulating the actual fossil bones of an 60 to 80 ton sauropod is physically impossible. Not to mention, the fossils themselves are incredibly rare and fragile. Scaled down 3D models make the new research a possibility, and also increase scientific accuracy by correcting for changes in bone structure from fossilization.
Reconstructing Incomplete Fossils
The Natural History Museum of Berlin is also making scientific strides with 3D reconstructions of massive dinosaurs. The museum once discovered 250 tons of dinosaur bones in Tanzania on an epic dig, which make up the majority of the fossil displays found at the museum today. However many of the specimens were too incomplete to reconstruct, making them less valuable for answering research questions. By using 3D scanning and printing, researchers are able to examine and add morphological data to the specimens, creating a more complete model.
New Ways to Excavate
3D Printing is also revolutionizing the way researchers discover and excavate fossils. Sergio Azevedo, a researcher at the National Museum of Brazil in Rio, was able to use a portable CT scanner to find the exact location of fossils in the ground, then cut the entire specimen out. The method involves photogrammetry, a technique that takes photographs of the specimens from different angles and then digitally removes the surrounding rock. This is an incredibly useful method, as it prevents workers from accidentally damaging a fossil with their tools, and allows for researchers to view inner structures of fossils. None of this would be possible without 3D printing technology.