Mar 20, 2016 | By Tess

Roughly 77 million years ago, one of the largest land dinosaurs currently known to man, the Dreadnoughtus schrani, walked the earth. How it walked, however, has remained  somewhat unclear, especially because of the animal’s enormous size. Fortunately, a team of researchers at Drexel University’s Laboratory for Biological Systems Analysis in Philadelphia have been using 3D printing, servomotors, and ingenuity to investigate how the colossal, long extinct being could have once moved.

The Dreadnoughtus schrani’s bones were originally uncovered by a team of paleontologists led by then Drexel professor Dr. Kenneth Lacovara over a series of expeditions in Argentina between the years 2005 and 2009. The find was a significant one, as it not only revealed what was the largest land dinosaur ever found, but also one of the most complete skeletons of a titanosaur ever found, with approximately 45% of its bones accounted for. The paleontological find was officially unveiled in 2014, along with a virtual mount of the dinosaur’s skeleton, which was achieved by 3D scanning each of the dinosaur’s bones.

Using the 3D scans of the Dreadnoughtus fossils, Kristyn Voegele, a doctoral candidate in the Drexel College of Arts and Sciences, constructed a biomechanical computer model of the dinosaur’s skeleton to shed light onto how it could have moved. By analyzing the muscle scars still present on the well preserved bones, Voegele has been able to get a good idea as to the dinosaurs ligament and muscle structure and has virtually recreated them using MSC Adams simulation software.

She explains, “Our reconstruction of the joint is based partly on the morphology of the bone—the shape and well-preserved muscle-attachment scars give us a good idea about where tendons and muscles might have been attached. We also look at the joints of reference species like chickens and crocodiles, which are the closest living relatives and are predicted to share many physiological characteristics with dinosaurs.”

Not only wanting to recreate the muscle movement digitally, however, Voegele enlisted the help of Drexel’s College of Engineering to make physical models of the bones, ligaments, and muscles in order to see how they fared with elements like gravity in the mix. Using a MakerBot 3D printer, undergraduate engineering researcher David McDevitt has additively manufactured miniature models of a number of the dinosaur’s bones in order to turn the Dreadnoughtus’ digital model into a physical reality.

So far, Voegele and McDevitt have focused their work on the Dreadnoughtus’ left arm, specifically its elbow, to see how that part of its body would have operated. Voegele explains, “We started with the forelimb because the fossilized bones were the best preserved and have some of the most distinct features that indicate muscle and tendon attachment.”

To make the robotic dinosaur limb, McDevitt 3D printed three bones at a 1/10 scale, which took a total of 12 hours on the 3D printer. Made out of PLA material, the 3D printed bones reportedly have a similar density to the actual dinosaur’s bones, making them suitable for testing. The joints for the model are also made using 3D printing technologies, though as they necessitate some flexibility, McDevitt has simply 3D printed the molds and then casts them in silicone for the final joints. The joints and ligaments of the model have been attached to the bones by small knobs added to the 3D printed bones’ design.

To get the muscles and 3D printed bones moving, McDevitt also created a small biomechanical rig equipped with a motor bed and a set of servomotors designed to simulate the limb’s movement. Using “spooling and unspooling Teflon-coated steel cables” which have been attached to the bones, the motors can control three opposing muscle groups. Once set up, the dangling limb in the rig can be made to move easily simply by pressing a few computer keys, and can be easily modified to test different properties.

“This is basically a plug-and-play model,” says McDevitt. “We can print out any of the bone scans or cartilage designs that Kristyn sends over. And it’s easy enough to attach the simulated muscles and ligaments at different positions on the bones.”

While they are currently working on the Dreadnoughtus’s elbow movement, Voegele and McDevitt hope to one day create a workable model for the dinosaur that could show how it may have once roamed the earth. And, as Voegele explains, 3D printing has been crucial to the process, as it has allowed for the important physical elements of gravity and the shape of the bones to be explored in a physical context, rather than just a digital one. “We suspect that energy efficiency and conservation had a lot to do with their behavior and movement,” concludes Voegele. “So being able to study movement from a biomechanical standpoint gives us a great perspective on how these creatures might have moved.”

3D scanning and printing has helped many paleontological efforts in the past years, as just yesterday we wrote about how 3D technologies have helped to uncover missing links in the Tyrannosaurus Rex's evolution.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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