Resurrecting dinosaurs with medical scanners and 3D printers

CT scans and 3D printers are making it possible to see fossils that were previously inaccessible inside rock.

Accurate copies of fossilised bones can now be made from the combined use of computed tomography (CT) scans and 3D printers, according to a paper published in the journal Radiology.

The technique offers scientists a non-destructive way of transporting and handling rare or fragile fossils.

To protect such specimens from damage during transportation, the fossils are often stored in plaster jackets or casts. These jackets must be strong enough to protect the fossils, but should also separate easily from the specimen when removed.

It is during the removal of the plaster and surrounding sediment that the fossil is in danger of material loss or even destruction. This typically occurs when the plaster is stuck fast to the bone.

(A 3D print of a fossil (right) next to the original still inside a plaster jacket. Image: Courtesy of Radiology and RSNA)

A group of German researchers found that, by using CT and 3D printers, they could separate fossilised bone from its surrounding sediment matrix in a way that would not harm the specimen, then produce a 3D copy of it.

Applying this method to an unidentified fossil from the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin, the researchers scanned the bone with a 320-slice multi-detector system to show up the different attenuation (absorption of radiation) through the bone and the surrounding sediment matrix, depicting clearly the fossilised vertebra.

The scan also provided information on the condition and integrity of the specimen, like otherwise unknown fractures, and helped the researchers build an accurate reconstruction of the fossil.

Then using a laser sintering system – a process which uses high-powered lasers to fuse materials by adding thin horizontal layers of plastic – an accurate 3D copy of the fossil was produced.

(An enlarged 3D copy of a 380 million year old coelacanth skull found near Fitzroy Crossing, Western Australia. Image: John Long)

The impact on palaeontology
According to Richard Brian Gunderman, a professor of radiology at Indiana University who was not involved in the study, CT scanners are able to determine the exact structural dimensions of an object, down to fractions of a millimetre.

This data can then be used to construct a replica so precise that objects of great historical interest, like Stradivarius violins, have been created to sound remarkably similar to the originals.

“Such a technology has been a boon to palaeontologists in the past few years,” said John Long, strategic professor in palaeontology at Flinders University.

“Once we relied on meticulous time-consuming methods to prepare delicate fossils out of the rock and, even then, we could only see their external features. Now, using high-resolution micro-CT scanners and synchrotrons [particle accelerators], we can investigate every nook and cranny of the fossil right down to individual cells and tissue structures without having to risk damaging the specimen.

“Combined with advanced 3D printing, we can now slice though the ancient fossil skulls and print them in halves showing the full anatomy in clear definition. This will no doubt revitalise palaeontology.”

(A 3D scan of a 380 million-year-old Gogonasus fish skull by Tim Senden and ANU Vizlab.)

Ahi Sema Issever, from the Charité Campus Mitte in Berlin and one of the study’s authors, explained: “The most important benefit of this method is that it is non-destructive so the risk of harming the fossil is minimal. In addition, not only does this method allow for a global exchange of rare fossils in any quantity, data on the specimens can also be digitally shared between research institutes, museums and schools while protecting the original fossil.”

Darren Curnoe, associate professor at the University of New South Wales, agreed, saying: “Famous fossils like the Taung Child in South Africa - the very first ancient ape-like creature found in our human evolutionary tree - has been quite badly damaged following almost 90 years of study by scientists.

“Almost everyone who sees the fossil wants to take a couple of measurements of their own, and by doing so, is damaging these priceless pieces of our collective heritage. We need to do better, and such technology might just be the answer.”

A note of caution
Although supportive of the technological breakthrough in this study, Professor Long warned that researchers must not rely too heavily on tomographic imagery and 3D printing to draw their conclusions.

“It is important to carefully study the preservational biases of the original fossil first to determine how reliable a computer-generated image will be. In some cases, replacement of bone by other minerals or the presence of solid inclusions can effect the quality of CT images and affect 3D printing results.

“Scientists still need to study the original specimens in detail first, and then make interpretations using CT tomography and 3D printing.”

(A scanned 400 million-year-old placoderm eye capsule found in Taemas near Canberra. Image: Tim Senden)

Associate Professor Curnoe agreed, saying: “Any model made from CT scans must properly distinguish actual bone from missing bone, or even from materials like plaster, that had been used in the past to reconstruct missing bones in the fossils. This is particularly important since most fossils found are incomplete or distorted.

“In the end, there is nothing like seeing the real thing to fully understand the anatomy and the state of preservation of a fossil. But, for the sort of work many scientists do, especially postgraduate students, 3D models would be incredibly useful at a time when funding can be very hard to get.”

Beyond fossils
Some experts speculate that the findings from this study will benefit the medical field, like building and fitting implants in orthopaedic surgery. Others feel that the technique could be used to model real bones and other tissues, such as cadavers that have been preserved in ice or peat bogs.

Martin Baumers, a research fellow at the University of Nottingham, would like to see the implementation of a virtual library and data infrastructure for such 3D data and designs. He believes that it would aid collaborative research, allowing experts from different disciplines to share and retrieve 3D models for 3D printing or other scientific, even commercial, usage.

For Professor Long, the biggest breakthrough will come when palaeontologists possess the ability to make portable machines to take into the field and scan fossils, still buried under the rock layers, to determine the full extent of the fossil before excavating it.

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.The Conversation

A scan of a 380million-year-old tooth from a fossil shark. (Image: Tim Sendon)
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Not just a one-quack mind: ducks are capable of abstract thought

Newborn ducklings can differentiate between objects that are the same and objects that are different, causing scientists to rethink the place of abstract thinking.

There’s a particular loftiness to abstract thought. British philosopher and leading Enlightenment thinker John Locke asserted that “brutes abstract not” – by which he meant anything which doesn’t fall under the supreme-all-mighty-greater-than-everything category of Homo sapiens was most probably unequipped to deal with the headiness and complexities of abstract thinking.

Intelligence parameters tail-ended by “bird-brained” or “Einstein” tend to place the ability to think in abstract ways at the Einstein end of the spectrum. However, in light of some recent research coming out of the University of Oxford, it seems that the cognitive abilities of our feathery counterparts have been underestimated.

In a study published in Science, led by Alex Kacelnik – a professor of behavioural psychology – a group of ducklings demonstrated the ability to think abstractly within hours of being hatched, distinguishing the concepts of “same” and “different” with success.

Young ducklings generally become accustomed to their mother’s features via a process called imprinting – a learning mechanism that helps them identify the individual traits of their mothers. Kacelnik said: “Adult female ducks look very similar to each other, so recognising one’s mother is very difficult. Ducklings see their mothers from different angles, distances, light conditions, etc, so their brains use every possible source of information to avoid errors, and abstracting some properties helps in this job.”

It’s this hypothesised abstracting of some properties that led Kacelnik to believe that there must be more going on with the ducklings beyond their imprinting of sensory inputs such as shapes, colours or sounds.

The ability to differentiate the same from the different has previously been used as means to reveal the brain’s capacity to deal with abstract properties, and has been shown in other birds and mammals, such as parrots, pigeons, bees and monkeys. For the most part, these animals were trained, given guidance on how to determine sameness and differences between objects.

What makes Kacelnik’s ducklings special then, as the research showed, was that they were given no training at all in learning the relations between objects which are the same and object which are different.

“Other animals can be trained to respond to abstract relations such as same or different, but not after a single exposure and without reinforcement,” said Kacelnik.

Along with his fellow researcher Antone Martinho III, Kacelnik hatched and domesticated mallard ducklings and then threw them straight into an experiment. The ducklings were presented pairs of objects – either identical or different in shape or colour – to see whether they could find links and relations between the pairs.

The initial pairs they were presented served as the imprinting ones; it would be the characteristics of these pairs which the ducklings would first learn. The initial pairs involved red cones and red cylinders which the ducklings were left to observe and assimilate into their minds for 25 minutes. They were then exposed to a range of different pairs of objects: red pyramid and red pyramid, red cylinder and red cube.

What Kacelnik and his research partner found was that the ducklings weren’t imprinting the individual features of the objects but the relations between them; it’s why of the 76 ducklings that were experimented with, 68 per cent tended to move towards the new pairs which were identical to the very first pairs they were exposed to.

Put simply, if they initially imprinted an identical pair of objects, they were more likely to favour a second pair of identical objects, but if they initially imprinted a pair of objects that were different, they would favour a second pair of differing objects similar to the first.

The results from the experiment seem to highlight a misunderstanding of the advanced nature of this type of conceptual thought process. As science journalist Ed Yong suggests, there could be, “different levels of abstract concepts, from simple ones that young birds can quickly learn after limited experience, to complex ones that adult birds can cope with”.

Though the research doesn’t in any way assume or point towards intelligence in ducklings to rival that of humans, it seems that the growth in scientific literature on the topic continues to refute the notions that human being as somehow superior. Kacelnik told me: “The last few decades of comparative cognition research have destroyed many claims about human uniqueness and this trend is likely to continue.”