Jan 10, 2019 | By Cameron

The mysteries hidden within a prehistoric marine reptile skull have been revealed using CT scanning and 3D printing technologies. The large skull belonged to an ichthyosaur, a dinosaur that roamed the oceans some 200 million years ago. Researchers from the University of Manchester, University College London, and Cambridge University collaborated on the project to create a digital model that is a first of its kind, though the meter-long skull was discovered 60 years ago by a farmer.

“It is the first time a digital reconstruction of a skull and mandible of a large marine reptile has ever been made available for research purposes and to the public. Although thousands of ichthyosaur fossils have been unearthed in the UK, this specimen is particularly important and unusual because it is three-dimensionally preserved and contains bones of the skull that are rarely exposed,” the University of Manchester relates.

Computerized tomography (CT) scanning technology allowed the researchers to see inside the skull, revealing areas not usually preserved in most fossils, as lead author and paleontologist at the University of Manchester Dean Lomax explains, “The first time I saw this specimen I was puzzled by its excellent preservation. Ichthyosaurs of this age (Early Jurassic) are usually ‘pancaked’, meaning that they are squished so that the original structure of the skull is either not preserved or is distorted or damaged. So to have a skull and portions of the skeleton of an ichthyosaur of this age preserved in three dimensions, and without any surrounding rock obscuring it, is something quite special.”

After an initial examination, the research team noticed that several bones of the braincase are present, which are rarely preserved in similar specimens, but only the left side was preserved. So the left braincase was micro-CT scanned at Cambridge University by co-author Dr Laura Porro; the image was then mirrored before 3D printing to create a full braincase.

Analyzing digital and 3D printed reconstructions of fossils enables more accessibility to the data while preserving the original fossils. Porro states, “CT scanning allows us to look inside fossils – in this case, we could see long canals within the skull bones that originally contained blood vessels and nerves. Scans also revealed the curation history of the specimen since its discovery in the ‘50s. There were several areas reconstructed in plaster and clay, and one bone was so expertly modeled that only the scans revealed part of it was a fake. Finally, there is the potential to digitally reconstruct the skull in 3D. This is hard (and risky) to do with the original, fragile and very heavy fossil bones; plus, we can now make the 3D reconstruction freely available to other scientists and for education.”

3D printing may be the technology of tomorrow, but it’s solving puzzles that are millions of years old. Lomax relates, “It’s taken more than half a century for this ichthyosaur to be studied and described, but it has been worth the wait. Not only has our study revealed exciting information about the internal anatomy of the skull of this animal, but our findings will aid other paleontologists in exploring its evolutionary relationship with other ichthyosaurs.”



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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