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New Dinosaur Skulls as Easy as 3D Printing

July 31, 2013

What do you do when your dinosaur skeleton doesn’t have a head?

3D Thesolosaur skull file based on a virtual CT scan, Research Casting International.

3D Thescelosaur skull file based on a virtual CT scan, Research Casting International.

Thescelosaurus neglectus, commonly called the bird foot dinosaur, was a ground dwelling plant eater with a long tail that roamed western North America between 75 and 65 million years ago. Thescelosaurus, which means “godlike”, “marvelous”, or “wondrous” lizard, has become a popular museum exhibit specimen, especially after a nearly complete skeleton was unearthed in 1993 in South Dakota.

Museums like the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County have been eager to acquire exhibits of this special dinosaur. The problem is that while museums have been able to acquire casts of T. neglectus’ body from Research Casting International, one of the world’s largest providers of museum technical services including specimen restoration casting, molding, mounting and exhibit fabrication, this exhibit provider doesn’t have the correct dinosaur skull for T. neglectus.

This specimen at the North American Museum of Ancient Life features an incorrect skull on a body skeleton of T. neglectus.

This specimen at the North American Museum of Ancient Life features an incorrect skull on a body skeleton of T. neglectus.

This is where the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences comes in.

“The LA County museum was wanting a new dinosaur exhibit, and they knew we had the correct head to this dinosaur, because we have probably the most complete Thescelosaurus specimen ever found, with the skull,” said Vince Schneider, curator of paleontology at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.

Schneider refers to Willo, the most complete thescelosaur ever found, featured today on the 3rd floor of the Museum.

“So what they wanted to do, is they wanted to put the right head on their specimen,” Schneider said. “They wanted to know if they could cast our dinosaur’s skull.”

While Schneider was unsure about having the Museum’s T. neglectus’ skull taken down from exhibit for casting, a complex process that would have required time and care in creating a mold of the real skull, he proposed an alternative. Clint Boyd, now a postdoc in Geology and Geological Engineering at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, had worked on a careful description of the Museum’s T. neglectus specimen during his time as a PhD student at North Carolina State University. As a part of his research, he had temporarily removed Willo’s skull to obtain computed tomography, or CT, scans of the specimen at NC State’s veterinary school.

CT scanning is a medical procedure based on x-rays that can produce a virtual 3-dimensional image of a real-world object, such as a skull. Because Boyd had already created a CT scan of Willo’s skull, and because Research Casting International can create a 3D printed plastic resin replica of a specimen using a virtual CT scan, Schneider suggested this as an alternative to the LA County museum’s request for a physical mold.

Using Boyd’s CT scan of Willo’s skull, the LA County museum paid Research Casting International to create a slightly smaller replica of the NC Museum’s Thescelosaurus neglectus skull that would fit perfectly with the body specimen they had obtained from the exhibit provider. The new thescelosaur exhibit at the LA County museum is curated by Luis Chiappe.

“So basically, they took the information from the CT scan – you know, you can reproduce a specimen from a CT scan – and they got a machine that can do a rapid prototype or 3D copy based on the scan,” Schneider said, pointing to a mounted skull sitting on his desk. “But this is the one they sent us for free, because we had given them the scan materials.”

Mounted Skull, compliments of Garth Dallman, Research Casting International.

Image of Mounted Skull, compliments of Garth Dallman, Research Casting International.

The 3D printed skull, which takes about 4 to 6 hours to print with a special machine, is painted to look realistic.

“Our 3D printer is an additive layer system that uses a white gypsum power and binder solution (glue), that builds layers on top of each other to create the end product,” said Mike Macleod from Research Casting International.

The 3D printed replica skull, which costs a mere $200.00 USD to print and another $300.00 USD to paint and mount, is an excellent alternative to the process by which molds are physically created from the real skull specimen. It not only saves time, but saves potential damage to delicate fossilized specimens like Willo.

Will 3D printing be the future of museum dinosaur exhibits?

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