Feb.26, 2013

This autumn, when everything is ready, a life-sized five million-year-old whale fossils printed with 3D technology will go on show at the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, DC.

(1/8-scale rendering of 3D printed whale fossils)

It was in 2011, Smithsonian paleobiologist Nick Pyenson took a trip to Chile. He decided to spend some of his last hours at a local highway construction site in the Atacama Desert.

"We drove up the ramp from the south and I was blown away," recalls Pyenson, the curator of fossil marine mammals at the National Museum of Natural History. "Whale skull. Whale skull. Whale skull." Dozens and dozens of whale skeletons were uncovered.

Local museum experts planed to remove the skeletons before the whole site would be paved over within two months. But a problem with removal is that spatial information about different constellations of fossilized bones is then lost.

Why did so many whales die and were buried together two million years ago? ""Animals die and are deposited in an environment of one kind or another," Pyenson explains. "Knowing how they came to rest, the sediment they are buried in, whether they were scavenged, whether sharks bit them and what other bones are found nearby" are among the most telling details for paleontologists.

Pyenson went home to DC and three weeks later, he brought back Smithsonian's in-house 3D digitization team to Chile. The team spent a week scanning the whale fossils with a high resolution laser scanner. These virtual models are created in their original positions for future study.

(Vince Rossi wields a laser to document a whale fossil in Chile. (Nick Pyenson / NMNH, SI)

"Day and night, we passed the scanner back and forth," Vince Rossi, one of the "laser cowboys" says; their arms, knees and backs ached. The digital avatars turned out better than they could have hoped.

A real life-sized whale was about 26 feet (7.92 meter) long. The team has printed out some replicas with smaller size. But Pyenson says the Smithsonian has partnered with 3D printing service company to print out a full sized version of whale fossils.

(A scale model of Skeleton)

Today, with these 3D printed replicas and the scans, Pyenson can explore how the animals died. "Perhaps it was a stranding, or shark attacks, or a tsunami. He's particularly interested in the orangish algae residue visible on some fossils and in images of the ancient seafloor. Toxic algae blooms commonly kill modern whales." noted Smithsonian. The discovery result was be published and put online later so other researchers can access and analyze it.








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