Jan.19, 2014

For years, paleontologists are trying to duplicate fragile fossils without damaging them. Now researchers at the University of Oregon are making use of a relatively inexpensive 3D printer to print a 3D model of a rare fossil - the remains of a 5-million-year old saber toothed salmon.

The fossil specimen includes the braincase, face and jaw of a 6- to 7-foot-long fish that inhabited Pacific Northwest waters about 5 million years ago. They were ancestors of sockeye salmon. The specimen, uncovered in 1964 near Madras, Ore., is housed among the paleontological collections at the UO Museum of Natural and Cultural History (MNCH).

The university wanted to make the fossil the centerpiece of a salmon evolution exhibit at its Museum of Cultural and Natural History. But this rare fossil was too fragile and too scientifically valuable to risk casting - traditionally researchers use latex to make molds, and then they pull the mold and make a cast out of that mold. However during the process of removing the mold fragile fossils can shatter and be permanently destroyed.

Enter the 3D printer. University of Oregon paleontologist Edward Davis and librarian Dean Walton first gave a CT scan to the rare Onchorynchus rasturus fossil. Using a CT scan of the fossil as a digital model, the printer is generating a 3D replica by melting layers of plastic and stacking them atop one another until the object is formed. After 70 hours of printing, the first piece of the printout — part of the lower jaw — was completed on Dec. 20, 2013. Three additional pieces will print in the coming weeks.

credit: University of Oregon

"After each piece has printed, we'll glue the pieces together, and then use them to form a cast so that additional replicas can be made," Davis said. "We couldn't pull a cast from the actual fossil specimen because it's so fragile, but now we have a way to do that — and to increase access to this striking animal by researchers, students and the public."

credit: University of Oregon

The Science Library acquired the MakerBot-manufactured printer in November 2013. "The great thing here is that the library is common ground on campus, so the MakerBot is a resource that all UO community members can use," Walton said.

Davis is working on phase 3 of the sabertoothed salmon printing effort. credit: University of Oregon

The saber-toothed salmon will play a starring role in the MNCH's upcoming natural history exhibit, "Explore Oregon!" The cast formed from the completed printout will allow the fabrication of a realistic model that visitors to the museum will be able to examine and touch.


Posted in 3D Printing Applications



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