The newest technology is being used at Pittsburg State University to explore creatures who lived in the distant past, including what may have been earth’s first bird.
It started when Jason Ward, assistant professor in the PSU graphics and imaging technology department, was trying to find an ideal object to scan with the department’s Next Engine 3-D scanner.
Sean McCartney, senior engineering technology major from Carl Junction, Mo., asked what objects scan the best.
“Rocks,” Ward said.
Then McCartney asked if fossils would work, and Ward told him to bring some in.
“I’ve been an amateur paleontologist for about 40 years, and I started bringing in my collection,” McCartney said. “It just kind of took off from there.”
Earlier this week the two went to the University of Kansas to obtain some fossils specimens that David Burnham, PhD, Kansas state paleontologist, wanted to have scanned.
“He grabbed a box and started filling it with bones,” McCartney said. “Jason had to stop him. Dr. Burnham has about 100 projects he wants us to scan.”
Among them are a cast of Confusiornis, a primitive crow-sized bird from China which dates from 125 to 140 million years ago. McCartney said it could be the first bird, though it’s always possible that fossils of even earlier birds may be discovered.
“Confusiornis pre-dates Archaeopteryx by at least nine million years,” McCartney said. “It was the first to have proto-feathers.”
Also from KU collections are bones from microraptors from China, tiny carnivorous dinosaurs.
The fossils are scanned and 3-D models can be created from the scan. The models can be exact, or can be manipulated. McCartney explained that many fossil bones found have suffered deformation or damage over the centuries.
Page 2 of 3 - “Once we scan them in, we can use software to correct all the imperfections and create a perfect bone,” he said.
McCartney said that only juvenile fossils have been found for one type of tiny raptor.
“They want us to scan in the bones they have and scale up the model to create what the adult form would be,” he said.
That can be done. Even more spectacular will be what McCartney and Ward will do with the one-sided triceratops that belongs to the Palm Beach Museum of Natural History in Florida.
“They want us to fill in the missing half and create a whole triceratops,” he said.
He and Ward have an even bigger task coming.
“They want us to scan the wall of the Dinosaur National Monument in Utah,” McCartney said.
The two will also probably head back to KU to get more things to scan.
“I thought it would take us three weeks to finish everything Dr. Burnham gave us, but we’ll be done with it all in around a week,” Ward said.
The assistant professor said that the 3-D technology makes all this possible.
“It’s so interdisciplinary you can almost apply it to every department at the university,” Ward said. “We aren’t inventing anything here, but finding new applications for it.”
He said that thousands of models can be created from a scan made of an object.
“You don’t have to worry about wearing out a mold,” Ward said.
Page 3 of 3 - McCartney noted that some places don’t even want the finished product because they can study object just from the scans. This will eliminate the cost and potential damage of shipping fossils other places for study. It’s also possible to attach links to research along with the digital fossils, so that each could come with links to every piece of research ever written about a particular bone.
PSU is one of the few institutions to currently use 3-D scanning for paleontology, and both Ward and McCartney are proud that the university is on the cutting edge.
“We’ll no longer have to rely on artists to give us a best guess of what dinosaurs looked like and how they behaved,” McCartney said. “We’ll have it. We’ll be able to assign muscles to connection points, we can test and determine how much force was in a set of jaws or how much strength was in a set of T-Rex arms. This is a major game-changer for paleontology.”