Printing a Dinosaur

(Sellosaurus) Nobu Tamura/Creative Commons; (fossils) Radiology, Radiological Society of North America

ScienceShot: Printing a Dinosaur

Researchers have found a way to extract dinosaur bones and other fossils from rock without picking up a hammer and chisel. The target fossil for the new study was a specimen that had been dug up from a German clay pit in the early 1900s. The object, still encased in much of the rock that had entombed it, had been slathered in concrete and then transported back to a museum in Berlin—which was struck by a bomb during World War II, sending the specimen and hundreds of others into a jumbled heap of rubble. Most of the fossils that weren’t blasted to dust had had their labels burned, so no one could identify what the remaining concrete jackets held or where they had been dug up. Technology to the rescue: A CT scan of one such lump (left, main image) revealed that it held a vertebra (plastic model, right) from a Plateosaurus (artist’s concept, inset), the researchers report online today in Radiology. That, in turn, allowed the researchers to determine where the fossil had originally been unearthed, among other details. Scientists have long used CT scans to peek inside fossil-bearing rocks, but the increasing use of 3D printers now enables them to make endless numbers of exact copies of those relics. Because CT scans are noninvasive, the approach minimizes the risk of shattering or otherwise damaging a rare fossil while trying to extract it from its rocky tomb. The technique might even help museum folk speed up their analyses: By knowing what’s inside a lump of rock, researchers can determine which fossils are worth extracting, and which ones can wait.

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