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SciTech Tuesday: 3D Printing Reveals Dinosaur Fossil Damaged During WWII

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Copy of Plateosaurus vertebrae produced by 3D printing.  Image courtesy of Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin.

Copy of Plateosaurus vertebrae produced. Image courtesy of Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin.

A mislabeled dinosaur bone damaged during WWII has been identified using CT scanning and 3D printing. Encased in plaster by a paleontologist at the Museum of Natural History in Berlin over 100 years ago the fossilized vertebrae belonged to Plateosaurus, a long-necked plant-eating dinosaur that could reach over 10 meters in length. The fossil originated from a major excavation south of Halberstadt, Germany from 1910 to 1927 and was stored in the basement of the museum with fossils from another dig in Tanzania.

Bombing raids destroyed large parts of the East Wing of the museum, turning much of the fossil collection into a pile of rubble and debris. While the recovered Plateosaurus fossil was labeled, its origin was unclear. Did the dinosaur bone come from the dig in Halberstadt or Tanzania? Opening the plaster jacket would risk damaging or destroying the delicate fossilized bone. Instead, German paleontologists turned to cutting edge medical technology.

The plaster-covered fossil was analyzed using computed tomography, or CT scanning, a technology that utilizes targeted x-rays to produce a three-dimensional image of interior structure. Often CT scans are used by physicians to screen for diseases and disorders of the brain, lungs, heart and digestive system. In the case of the mysterious fossil, researchers traced the dinosaur bone to the Halberstadt dig by comparing the results of the CT scan with old excavation drawings. The CT data also revealed multiple fractures in the fossil making removing the plaster jacket an impossibility. Instead, a reconstruction of the encased Plateosaurus vertebrae was made by a 3D printer.

Post by Annie Tête, STEM Education Coordinator

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