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A recent publication by D. Andrew Thomas features CT scan-based digital reconstructions of the cranial anatomy of Tenontosaurus tilletti, a basal Iguanodontid dinosaur of the lower Cretaceous.  Tenontosaurus has a special place in my heart, as I've built exhibit mounts featuring this dinosaur.  (Below is a link to a photo of one mount of an "exploded" skull reconstruction).  I'm of the opinion that the methods used in this study offer a glimpse into the future of vertebrate paleontology.


Historically, fossils are excavated and brought into a lab where the delicate and laborious process of fossil preparation can be performed.  Having considerable experience in fossil preparation, I can attest to the many hours of intent focus needed to carry out the tasks of stabilization, consolidation, assembly, etc. on a fossil.  While I don't expect that the interest in exposing the actual fossil and rendering it into a condition that allows it to be safely handled by researchers or displayed in museum exhibits will subside, I see tremendous promise in digital preparation, as was done here.  By creating 3D images of the specimens and then digitally removing the surrounding rock matrix, a specimen can be interpreted while it is still embedded in rock.  This has a few advantages.  First, while the specimen may take many months to liberate from the rock matrix, CT scan data is available immediately, so researchers can get a look at the morphology of the fossil much sooner than has historically been the case.  Second, having a 3D model printed can create a helpful guide for preparators to follow while doing the actual physical preparation (much as Dr. Mike has done with anatomical features of patients prior to surgery).  Third, the potential to share information is greatly increased, as digital files are easily shared among colleagues, and this can happen much more quickly (and with no risk to the fossil) than making molds and casts to share. 

Extra bonus - the author has included in the publication the STL files for the skull bones.  You can find the publication and the STL files here:



From the earliest days of paleontology, publications have featured illustrations.  Many of these engravings and lithographic plates not only offer good anatomical detail, but are beautiful works of art in and of themselves.  (For some wonderful examples, see Hatcher's USGS monograph on ceratopsian dinosaurs, and H.F. Osborn's description of the holotype of Tyrannosaurus rex.)  While photographs later came to be staples of scientific illustration, other forms of illustration still play a significant role.  Today, 3D image files are rapidly becoming an important part of scientific illustration.  I'm seeing a future where a publication concerning anatomy without 3D files will be considered inadequate. 



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Ooh. This is very interesting. The STL files are in appendix 4. Maybe somebody in the community can 3D print and report back about how it went. I'd be interested to hear.

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