Sep 20, 2016 | By Alec

Many of those of us who were lucky enough to grow up in the era of the Jurassic Park movie were awarded with a spectacular and imaginative obsession with dinosaurs. It was the first time dinosaurs became so tangible and understandable for a wide audience. But thanks to the rise of 3D imaging and 3D printing technology, the next generation of would-be paleontologists will have access to even more realistic dinosaur models. This has just been emphasized again by researchers from the University of Bristol, who managed to use 3D imaging technology and creativity to create a highly realistic 3D model of the mysterious Psittacosaurus – which lived 120 million years ago in China.

While spectacular in its own right, this 3D Psittacosaurus model is also part of a new trend in which digital 3D models and 3D printing is leading to new and informative insights – both for paleontologists and the wider public. Just in January, the American Museum of Natural History unveiled a 3D printed, life-size cast of the Titanosaur. Believed to be the largest dinosaur ever, this model makes it perfectly understandable just how large it actually was. Back in March, a 3D printed recreation of an ancestor of the T-Rex shed more light on the iconic dinosaur’s own evolution. And speaking of the T-Rex, the Dutch city of Leiden is now the proud home to an actual T-Rex fossil exhibition, which has been completed with 3D printed bones.

It just shows what 3D technologies and models can do for the world of paleontology, and the Psittacosaurus is another fantastic example. Its name means ‘parrot lizard’, and is a reference to its unusual beak. The dog-sized dinosaur is actually part of what is called the ‘Jehol Biota’, which refers to the species that flourished in northeastern China from 133 to 120 million years ago. It is also considered an early relative of the triceratops (of Jurassic Park fame). And in this particular case, a very well preserved fossil was found, including some skin and tissue remnants.

Through 3D imaging and 3D modeling, the UK researchers were able to show that this dinosaur actually exhibited the very modern counter-shading camouflage technique – meaning that it had a lighter shade underbelly that becomes darker and darker towards the top of the creature. Perfect for appearing flat in shadowed regions to both predators and prey. Used by many modern animals, it was largely unknown whether or not dinosaur species exhibited the same properties – simply because so few skin fossils have been found. What’s more, the specific colors and patterns suggest that the dinosaur likely lived in an environment with diffuse light, such as a forest – speaking volumes about the habitat in northeastern China 120 million years ago.

This important breakthrough has been realized by a team of researchers led by dr. Jakob Vinther and behavioral ecologist professor Innes Cuthill. Their findings have just been published in the journal Current Biology. And as they revealed, their 3D reconstruction enabled them to see exactly how the patterns of shading in the body looked like. “By reconstructing a life-size 3D model, we were able to not only see how the patterns of shading changed over the body, but also that it matched the sort of camouflage which would work best in a forested environment,” professor Cuthill explained on the Bristol University website.

This was entirely possible by the discovery of melanosome structures found in the fossilized skin and feathers – which carry the melanin pigments that give color. “The fossil […] preserves clear countershading, which has been shown to function by counter-illuminating shadows on a body, thus making an animal appear optically flat to the eye of the beholder,” Dr. Vinther explained. The fossil itself is on display at the Senckenberg Museum of Natural History in Germany.

To build the 3D model, the researchers enlisted the help of palaeoartist Bob Nicholls, who gathered extensive (3D) data from the fossil in Germany to build a scientifically accurate, life-sized model. Professor Innes and Bristol colleagues had previously been exploring countershading phenomena in modern animals, and worked hard to confer the same principles to their flattened, extinct dinosaur. Extensive pigment pattern studies and scale measurements were also undertaken, with input on muscle structure from Bristol paleontologists Professor Emily Rayfield and Dr Stephan Lautenschlager.

As Nicholls explained, he used all that data to build a model from the inside out. “There are thousands of scales, all different shapes and sizes, and many of them are only partially pigmented. It was a painstaking process but we now have the best suggestion as to what this dinosaur really looked like”, he explained. Nicholls started out by mimicking the bone structure, and adding subsequent layers of muscle tissue and eventually skin and scales – all by hand using resins, molds, Styrofoam and a basic metal frame.

But the results are spectacular. The Bristol researchers moved the finished model to the Cretaceous plant section of the Bristol Botanic Garden, which resemble creature’s possible environment in China and allowed them to study the 3D model under an open sky and underneath trees. This showed that the cast shadows perfectly aligned with the camouflage patterns. “We predicted that the psittacosaur must have lived in a forest. This demonstrates that fossil color patterns can provide not only a better picture of what extinct animals looked like, but they can also give new clues about extinct ecologies and habitats,” Dr. Vinther said. “We were amazed to see how well these color patterns actually worked to camouflage this little dinosaur.”

This approach can thus definitely unveil new information and insights about the habitats and exterior appearance of dinosaurs, and the Bristol researchers are already looking for more opportunities. In particular, they are keen to explore more camouflage patterns in fossils to contribute to our understanding of how the environment shaped the evolution and biodiversity of dinosaurs.

 

 

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