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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Paleontology by laser scan

The embedded track

Studying fossils used to have one major drawback: you had to have your hands on the actual fossil. Thomas Adams and his colleagues from Southern Methodist University found a solution that would allow paleontologists (and interested lay persons) around the world to study the same fossil. They proposed making high-resolution 3D scans of the objects and disseminating them for free.

The team used portable 3D laser scanners to digitally archive the footprint (shown above) of a large meat-eating dinosaur. The footprint, Eubrontes glenrosensis, was part of a deteriorating walkway in Dinosaur Valley State Park, Texas. Thanks to the efforts of Adams et al., the 3D digital model is now free for anyone to download. By the way, if you’re wondering why you’ve never heard of E. glenrosensis, it’s because that’s the name of the trackway, not the dinosaur that made the prints, which is believed to be Acrocanthosaurus tokenensis. Because it’s impossible to prove which dinosaur left a print, footprints are given their own unique names.

Much of the impetus for developing this methodology was to preserve specimens that are succumbing to the elements. Although there are 3D scans of some artifacts, there is no single standard format for creating them. The scientists hope the success of this proof of concept test will encourage other labs to accept the use of these portable scanners.

Thomas Adams explains: