Computer models and 3D printers aid in accurate reconstruction of primitive life

Computer models and 3D printers aid in accurate reconstruction of primitive life
from the magazine

Prehistoric animals were often nothing more than a few bone fragments, teeth, or pieces of skull. Digital models and 3D printers are increasingly being used to reconstruct a dinosaur or mammoth from these trivial remains. Will old technologies become obsolete in the future? We asked the experts.

Due to the relocation of the Science Center in Delft, it is now in storage and will soon be going to Naturalis for a few months. But then he’ll once again get a nice spot in the new TU Delft Science Center: Skull 21, the skull of Triceratops prorsus.

Between 66 and 68 million years ago, this was a stocky (large chariot-sized) herbivorous dinosaur head from Wyoming in the United States. At least part of the head. The Skull 21 was built not only from bone material millions of years ago, but also from layers of plastic that came out of a 3D printer this century.

digital model

Digital designer Javid Josch of Rotterdam and scientists from the Natural History Museum and Research Institute Naturalis in Leiden have reconstructed the dinosaur skull as faithfully as possible by first creating a digital 3D model in which the original bone parts fit perfectly and then printing the missing parts.

“It’s really the animal’s third reconstruction,” Joshish says. Skull 21 was excavated in Wyoming in 1891, then reconstructed there and shipped to the Netherlands in the late 1950s. However, something went wrong with the transfer, so that the skull eventually came out of the package in the form of about a hundred fragments.

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Paleontologist Peter Kruzinga, curator of minerals at Delft University of Technology, reformulated the puzzle in 1957. With today’s knowledge, its reconstruction could be improved.

3D scans

Then the researchers got to work. They demolished Cruzinga’s work, delved into their dinosaur catalogs, looked at the skulls of other Triceratops, received 3D scans and started digital modeling so they could make a proper model.

“We used two other, more complete Triceratops skulls as an example,” Joshish says. “We picked the anchor points on that, like the tips of the horns, the top of the neck carapace, and the TMJs, and then I started calculating the proportions.”

They turned out to be very different from Skull 21, after which the team made some significant changes to the design. Then it was all about fitting, measuring, and sculpting digitally until the puzzle was solved again. Then print, mill, drill, stick and solder to reassemble.

The bone surface structure was distilled from 1500 images of real bones. Together with restorer Aart Walen of Naturalis, Jooshesh has built a new version of the Skull 21 with a longer nose than its predecessor, larger neck shield and more outward pointing horns.

A new generation of dinosaur structures

Dinosaur expert Pasha van Pellert with printed skull
Tyrannosaurus rex for dinosaur
Museum in Nagasaki.

With this upgrade, Skull 21 joins a new generation of dinosaur building, replacing traditional crafts with computer models and 3D printing.

Triceratops horridus Dirk, one of Naturalis’ masterpieces, is also partly made of plastic bones. Some of them are mirrored parts of Dirk himself, because the bone or skull fragment was only on one side of the beast.

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It also concerns other Triceratopsen bones that have been scanned and digitized. “Often the bones are deformed quite a bit due to the pressure in the ground,” explains mathematician and dinosaur expert Pasha van Pelert, who took on much of this job. “We fixed that with a computer model.”

Read more about printed dinosaurs?

The full story can be read in the September issue of De Ingenieur. Buy the digital edition for 7.50 €, or get – at a huge discount of 25% – a digital annual subscription of 12 issues for 69 €.

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Text: Marlis Terre Fordy
Opening image: Reconstruction of a Triceratops in the traditional way in Remy Bakker’s studio. Remy Bakker’s photo.

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