Stephanie Benoit October 13, 2016

Materialise Mimics has often made a difference in the lives of hospital patients. But it isn’t only doctors and surgeons who are implementing our technology in beneficial ways – Dr. Stephen Brusatte at the University of Edinburgh is using 3D visualization to analyze dinosaur fossils -such as Tyrannosaurus-, which enables him to learn more about how evolution works over widespread timescales.


Using 3D Modeling for Paleontology

Fossils – as opposed to living creatures – can tell us a significant amount about evolution. The time frame is a great deal larger, which means it is easier to spot patterns and trends across the ages. Dr. Brusatte’s work starts at the paleontological dig site, where he and his team try to find new dinosaur species and then classify and characterize the specimens they have found. The study focuses on finding the missing pieces in the fossil structure by using 3D modeling.


This is a reconstructed skeleton of Timurlengia euotica with discovered fossilized bones, highlighted in red, and other bones remaining to be discovered inferred from other related species of tyrannosaurs in white. Individual scale bars for the pictured fossilized bones each equal 2 cm. The fossilized remains of a new horse-sized dinosaur, Timurlengia euotica, reveal how Tyrannosaurus rex and its close relatives became top predators, according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Skeletal reconstruction of Timurlengia euotica, with known bones colored in red. Individual bones come from different individuals, as they were surface collected as isolated specimens in the Bissekty Formation of Uzbekistan. The proportions of the skeleton are based on an intermediate body type between Xiongguanlong and Tyrannosaurus but should be considered provisional until associated material is found. © Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America


Once back at the paleontology and evolutionary biology lab, Dr. Brusatte gathers the primary data into extensive morphological phylogenetic analyses, which allows him to create a framework to increase our understanding of evolution. Fossilized skulls are a mine of information on how dinosaurs behaved while alive, and the brain cavity, ears, blood vessels, nerves and sinuses are all valuable indicators located in areas which are difficult to reach. Previously scientists were required to cut open the skull to reach this information, often resulting in a damaged specimen and incomplete data. These days, developments in modern technology such as scanners and 3D model reconstruction allow scientists to perform their studies more effectively in the field of paleontology.


The Benefit of Medical Images

Dr. Brusatte’s workflow starts with CT scanning the fossils of a tyrannosaur. The images are then converted into 3D models using Materialise Mimics. Once the 3D model has been reconstructed, he can perform a further analysis on the anatomy, to identify the structure and shape of the bones. One of the main advantages of having a digital model is that one is able to share it with other researchers from the same field. He tells us that

“The CT scanning of fossils has become a powerful tool in paleontology. CT scanners are as standard as cameras and calipers and rulers for fossils. Having a good platform for studying visualization and reconstructing modeling data from CT scans is essential, and 3D printers have turned out equally important.”



CT reconstructions of the holotypic braincase of T. euotica (ZIN PH 1146/16). (A) Posterior view. (B) Right lateral view. (C) Anterior view. (D) Left lateral view. (E) Dorsal view. (F) Ventral view. Endocast in (G) anterior view, (H) posterior view, (I) right lateral view, (J) left lateral view, (K) dorsal view, and (L) ventral view. © Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America


At the moment, he is working on a new species of tyrannosaur, a cousin of the famous T. rex, which shows that they initially started out as quite small dinosaurs – around the size of a horse. Although Dr. Brusatte only had a few bones to work on, after scanning them and 3D Printing the models he saw that they were key fossils. These confirmed the specimen was from the same family as Tyrannosaurus rex – the similarity of the shape of the brain, the sinuses and ears proved the link. With this information, Dr. Brusatte can fill in the puzzle pieces of T. rex’s evolutionary story: they started out as small, fringe predators, but their well-developed brains and keen senses slowly helped them evolve into the biggest carnivores that have ever roamed the planet.


About Dr. Stephen Brusatte

Dr. Stephen Brusatte is a Chancellor’s Fellow at the School of Geosciences in the University of Edinburgh. He graduated from the University of Chicago with a BSc in Geophysical Sciences, was awarded an MSc in Paleobiology, as well as an MSc in Earth Sciences, at the University of Bristol, before receiving his MPhil and PhD in Earth and Environmental Sciences from Columbia University in New York. As leader of the University of Edinburgh’s Vertebrate Paleontology Research Group, his research is focused on the anatomy, genealogy and evolution of dinosaurs and other fossil vertebrates. In particular, he is interested in the origin and early evolution of dinosaurs in the Triassic period, their mass extinction in the end-Cretaceous period, the anatomy of theropods, and the evolution of marine crocodylomorphs in the Mesozoic period. Read Dr. Brusatte’s publications on ResearchGate.

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