Royal Tyrrell Museum Palaeontologists Use 3D Printing to Replicate Fragile Fossils

Saturday, January 11, 2020

A 77.3 million-year-old daspletosaurus is now on display at the Royal Tyrrell Museum.

When a fossil is discovered it’s typically encased in rock.  

After surviving for millions of years, technicians at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology painstakingly remove that rock with fine instruments.

Once the specimen is revealed it can become brittle, especially when it's only one or two millimetres thick.

Many of the fossils at the Royal Tyrrell are too fragile to be put on display, so for decades, they've sat protected on shelves in the museum.

But now those rare bones can be photographed and scanned to create 3D printed replicas.

Amy Kowalchuk is the preparation and 3D technician at the museum. She’s mastered the technique of photographing original fossils, inputting the data into a computer program and sending it off to be 3D printed.

Kowalchuk says there’s been a lot of learning over the last three years on how to take the right photos.

“If you don’t have the photography just right for photogrammetry, it can take hours and hours of editing to take out extraneous material because the program will try to recreate the whole room around your object," she said.

"So until you really nail down how to take the photographs efficiently, then it’s a lot more time consuming than it is now I think.”

Lorna O’Brien is the head technician at the museum and proudly shows off the "exploded skull" exhibit, featuring a 77.3 million-year-old Daspletosaurus.  O’Brien says the fossils remained in storage for 20 years because they were too delicate to display.

“It’s been sitting in our collection for quite a while and we were trying to figure out how do we put this beautiful specimen on display but not compromise the fossil material, and we were able to do that with 3D printing," she said.

Francois Therrien is the curator of dinosaur paleoecology at the museum and is focused on learning more about dinosaur brains.

His challenge is brain tissue doesn’t fossilize. So he’s left with an empty cavity.

Therrien says a medical CT scan is taken of a dinosaur skull to map the brain cavity. But now that data can be used to make a 3D model of a dinosaur brain.

"Having a 3D object in your hands, you can truly look at it in all its orientations and get a better sense of perspective to see what parts are bigger than others, what’s the shape of the brain," said Therrien.

“So having the luxury of holding a dinosaur brain in your hands rather than just staring at it on a monitor makes a lot of difference.”

Because 3D technology is ever-evolving, the museum uses an outside source to do its printing.