Paleo-girls and boys and their toys

There are a lot of cool toys out there.  Not just Research Institute Legos, Paleontology Barbie, and a new generation of Jurassic World figurines, but toys that are products of technological advancement. What’s even cooler is that we have applied many of them to help advance our scientific knowledge.  Paleontology is no exception – technology toys are increasingly being adapted into research tools. To name a few examples: 3-D scanning and 3-D printing has hit the scene in the past few years, with applications from manufacturing to education to entertainment. Paleontologists have adopted 3-D scanning as a means for comparing shapes of bones (using 3D geometric morphometrics). 3-D printing is assisting with visualizations and analysis of brain evolution in extinct animals, improving our understanding of dinosaur biomechanics, providing fossil replicas for classroom education, and so forth. Technological advancements have lead to increased accuracy in radiometric age dating, helping us pinpoint absolute age dates for geologic events (like volcanic eruptions and extinctions). Even state-of-the-art medical equipment can help with anatomical diagnoses of fossils – not just living animals.

Skull of the type specimen of Tylosaurus kansasensis
at the Sternberg Museum of Natural History.
Tylosaurus kansasensis skeleton mounted at the
Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center

Recently, we took the skull of the type specimen of the mosasaur Tylosaurus kansasensis to the local hospital (thanks, Hays Medical Center!) to be CT scanned.  A type specimen is THE specimen used as the basis for naming a taxon. In this case, a new species. So all other specimens found will be compared to the type specimen to see if it is the same species or not.  Considering this, it’s pretty important to know as much as possible about a type specimen.  CT (Computerized Tomography) scanning involves taking x-ray images from multiple angles to create image slices of the inside of an object. For humans, CT scans are used to examine hard and soft tissues within the body (this is especially useful for diagnosing internal injuries to muscles, tendons, ligaments, organs, etc.). Importantly for paleontology, CT scans produce 3-D images.  Because the skull of this specimen is crushed and flattened, it is difficult to see and understand how all of the bones fit together.  The shape, size, and placement of skull bones is very important to understanding what makes each species unique, and important to understanding how the skull and jaws functioned. So we took in our Tylosaurus kansasensis skull to generate 3-dimensional images of all the skull bones.

Check out our video for images and more information on CT scanning and paleontology research!

Technological advancements are exciting. And scientific advancements are exciting. So it’s a welcome challenge to adapt the newest hot piece of technology into a tool for understanding extinct life and deep time!

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