Letting Dinosaurs Roam in their Natural Habitats with 3D Technology

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It is hard to find anybody who didn’t find dinosaurs interesting at least at some point, whether a passing fancy as a child or a lifelong career as a paleontologist, these gargantuan creatures easily capture our imaginations. Barring the bizarre insistence of a small group of lunatics that dinosaurs never actually existed, the public is fascinated any time new species are discovered or new information about them comes to light. And you can’t doubt the dedication of Dr. Scott Hocknull who was privileged enough to go on a behind the scenes tour of the Queensland Museum when he was 12 and has spent the 25 years since then volunteering and working at the museum, landing himself a job there as a paleontologist at the tender age of 22.

Screen Shot 2015-10-26 at 8.41.49 AMThe question that has plagued him ever since his mother gave him that behind the scenes experience as the best birthday present a child could wish for is: why can’t more people see all of the amazing stuff that is behind the scenes, hidden from public view? In a recently released TedX talk, it’s hard to resist the enthusiasm he obviously feels and the technology he has to show.

Dr. Hocknull with a much larger than life 3D print of a possum's molar.

Dr. Hocknull with a much larger than life 3D print of a possum’s molar.

On the table next to him, during his talk, he has a series of 3D printed objects. The first he shows is a tooth from an ancient possum, printed at 30 times its natural size. The model shows every detail, every cusp and is something that you can not only hold in your hands, but that also is really the only way to truly see the tooth. After all, the tooth itself is too delicate to be handled and much too small to be seen from a distance behind glass. And even though possum teeth aren’t normally high on my list of things I want to see, I realized that I may have dismissed them out of ignorance and inaccessibility more than any actual lack of interest.

Upping the cool factor even further, Hocknull showed us a detailed scan of a mudflat containing more dinosaur footprints than any other place in the world. On the surface of it (yes, pun definitely intended) it is absolutely fascinating. Laced with the footprints of the Earth’s previous tenants, long extinct, it comes home that they were once living creatures in a way that doesn’t quite hit the same as seeing their bones. However, what Hocknull was really interested lay beneath that surface. Unfortunately, it remained an inaccessible mystery until the development of sufficiently detailed CT scanning could peel away the layers and find the fossilized remains of the root systems of the plants that had been growing there.

Screen Shot 2015-10-26 at 8.43.25 AMBuilding on that data, the researchers were able to create a 3D print of the root systems as well as created a virtual world inhabited by the plants that those roots would have belonged to and the dinosaurs believed to have made the prints. They even went so far as to create a gaming environment on the X-box in which you could direct the dinos with controllers. If you can set aside the fact that many of them would either tear us limb from limb or accidentally squish us with one enthusiastic hug, they are suddenly more real and, actually, lovable than they have ever been before.

It’s too late to bring them back to life (and clearly not a good idea), but with 3D modeling and 3D printing, more of us can fall in love not only with them, but also with paleontology all over again.  Discuss this story in the 3D Printed Dinosaur forum thread on 3DPB.com.

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