\ Visualizing Evolution: Paleontology in 3D

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Paleontology in 3D

This is kind of an old story from the BBC (link), on a new method of visualizing organisms fossilized in amber. In the past, only insects in transparent amber could be studied, but these fossils exist in pieces of opaque amber from 100 million years ago.

Using highly accurate X-ray techniques, scientists can now see inside pieces of amber which once held their secrets in the dark:
What's even better is, once the data are collected (in extraordinary detail), 3-D printers can then be used to create larger-than-life models for study:
"In some ways it is better than having the real animal...If you think about it, the real wasp is 4mm and to see it you would need a microscope; and if it's in opaque amber you need a synchrotron. Once it's done as a plastic print, you can see what you want." - Dr Paul Tafforeau
A couple of months ago I attended a talk at the local chapter of the GNSI, where the presenter was demonstrating various methods of casting and molding. She showed, and I wish I had a picture of it, a large 3D printing made of an Emerald Ash Borer beetle, which is a parasite of some concern in this region. From this very detailed plastic model (which I think was about a foot and a half long), they had made multiple plaster copies which were painted and made into educational displays.

3D printing also has other useful applications in paleontology. As demonstrated by the University of Texas High-ResolutionX-ray CT Facility (link), printouts can not only be made of the actual bones:
But also endocasts, that show the form of the interior of the bone. In the case of the cranium this gives an impression of the shape of the brain.
The 3D Museum, a site maintained by the Vertebrate Paleobiology Lab of the University of California, Davis, contains interactive models of fossils that the viewer can rotate and zoom in on.

Their fossil models were created using a high-speed, high-accuracy laser scanner. Their library may be small, but I have hopes that this sort of interactive 3D reference will become more common. (Also see the Virtual Reality Brain Project, an especially useful reference for medical artists stuck with yet another neurology assignment).

The implications of 3D viewing and printing for scientific illustrators are very intriguing. I look forward to the day when 3D printing is common and affordable to the point where I can print out my own reference models to view and light from whatever angle. I think there is value in the tactile qualities of an object; to be able to hold it in your hands and turn it and get a sense of it in a way you never could with an on-screen interactive model. Although I do somewhat fear the day when the 3D printers start printing copies of themselves, evolving, and eventually trying to take over the world.


Kumah said...

omg... that's pretty freakin' cool.

: ]

Odd and All said...

A tool like this for artists? The thought makes my toes tingle!