A CT scan allowed scientists to uncover what was inside the plaster jacket and print a model (right). Photo via Radiology/RSNA
Researchers have created a 3D-printed reproduction of a dinosaur bone damaged during World War II, a development they say will help them study a dinosaur’s structure without further damaging the original.
Many dinosaur fossils are preserved in plaster casts, a process that protects the fossil. But, over the decades, it becomes difficult to remove the cast without taking some of the fossil with it. Using CT scanning technology to model the bone inside, researchers at Berlin’s Charite Campus Mitte created a 3D-printed bone from a previously unidentified bone discovered in the early 20th century. The researchers published their work in a study in the journal Radiology.
“The most important benefit of this method is that it is non-destructive, and the risk of harming the fossil is minimal,” lead author Ahi Sema Issever said. “It is not as time-consuming as conventional preparation.”
The idea of 3D printing fossils to give paleontologists something less valuable to play with isn’t new. Last year, researchers at Drexel University announced plans to print 3D-scaled models of dinosaur fossils to study how bones might fit together. They’ve even worked on creating robotic models of fossils that will give researchers more insight into how dinosaurs moved. Some of those models can be shrunk down to as small as six inches and can be created in just a few hours.
A scan of the original field map from excavation at Halberstadt, 1923. The inset shows a depiction of a fossilized vertebra. Via Radiology/RSNA
Issever’s study uses the technology for something a little different. The basement of Berlin’s Museum fur Naturkunde contains hundreds of dinosaur fossils, many of them from a specific dig site located south of Halberstadt that was active between 1910 and 1927. But bombing raids during World War II buried them under piles of rubble and jumbled the museum’s sorting system.
Since then, staff at the museum has had trouble resorting them, and many of the plaster jackets protecting the actual fossils appear to be mislabeled. By using a CT scan, they’re able to get an accurate model without actually opening the jacket. The CT scan also reveals more about the condition of the fossil—many of them were damaged by bombing raids and years spent in storage.
Issever imagines creating a 3D printer plan database of dinosaur fossils that will allow researchers around the world to study and help identify them, a process that could cut down on the time needed to re-catalog all of the bones.
“Just like Gutenberg’s printing press opened the world of books to the public, digital datasets and 3D prints of fossils may now be distributed more broadly while protecting the original, intact fossil,” Issever said. “Reproductions of the 3D print may easily be shared, and other research facilities could thus gain valuable informational access to rare fossils.”