Feb 20, 2016 | By Benedict

Morphosource, the online fossil database which became famous for its publication of homo naledi 3D images, now contains over 9,000 3D images of more than 500 extinct species. Its latest additions include 400 monkey skulls, added by Harvard scholars.

In September of last year, 3Ders reported on Morphosource, an online database of fossil scans suitable for 3D printing. The most exciting items in that database were the complete set of homo naledi fossils, discovered between 2013 and 2015 during the Rising Star Expedition in Johannesburg, South Africa. Homo Naledi, a 3-million-year-old human ancestor, stood at around 1.5m tall and could have weighed up to 45kg. The 1,500 bones were discovered deep in a cave but, thanks to Morphosource, budding archaeologists can now view, download, and 3D print 80 of the most important homo naledi specimens—right on their desktop.

Since the homo naledi upload sparked huge public interest in Morphosource—43,000 views and 7,600 downloads over 3 months—archaeologists have added more and more finds to the huge 3D image database, which now contains 3D printable files for over 500 extinct species. Recent uploads have included 400 skulls plus additional bones from 59 species of monkeys, apes, and lemurs, from the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard.

Morphosource was launched in 2013 by Doug Boyer, an assistant professor at Duke University, who has expressed satisfaction at the discipline become more open and collaborative. With Morphosource, site visitors can view, rotate, and zoom in on scans, and can even transform the digital models into physical copies using 3D printing. “We’re essentially taking the bones out of museum catacombs and putting them online,” Boyer said.

foot of Daubentonia madagscariensis scanned at 38micron

“Paleoanthropology is traditionally a closed good ol’ boy network where fieldwork is done in secret and findings are kept secret,” concurred Steven Churchill, a Duke evolutionary anthropology professor and participant in the Rising Star Expedition. “Researchers often sit on fossils for years and years before publishing, and then even after publication it can be hard to see the fossils or even see casts of them.”

3D scanning, a less invasive method of capturing and observing the fine details of specimens, is revolutionizing paleoanthropology. Micro-computed tomography, a special X-ray technique, even allows researchers to look inside specimens without breaking them apart or even touching them. “Many specimens in anthropology collections are pock-marked where dozens of researchers have set their calipers to retake the same measurements,” lamented Boyer.

Morphosource is currently the largest and most open online database of digital fossils, and shows no signs of slowing down. The collection currently consists of over 9,000 3D images from more than 70 institutions, the latest additions being Harvard’s huge dump of 400 monkey skulls. “Paleoanthropology has been relying on digital data more and more,” explained Boyer. “Before we released this dataset, only a dozen labs around the world had digital samples that large at their fingertips. Overnight we leveled the playing field in a significant way.”

The growing digitization of paleoanthropological finds is not only breaking down geographical obstacles in the field, it is also bringing 3D printed models to classrooms across the world. This process enables teachers to show physical, 3D printed replicas of extinct specimens to their students. Anatomically accurate 3D printed PLA monkey skulls? Sounds good to us!



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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