Stephanie Benoit July 30, 2018

Nothing conjures up the distant past like the image of the mammoth. Related to the modern-day elephant, mammoths roamed the plains of Europe, northern Asia and North America during the Ice Age, their skin covered in a thick, woolly coat to keep out the cold. 12,000 years ago, mammoths disappeared off the continent and 4000 years ago the last isolated island populations went extinct. But mammoths haven’t completely left us. Mammoth remains continue to be discovered, teaching us about the way these creatures lived thousands of years ago. The first mammoth to be displayed in Western Europe was found in Lier, Belgium. Although the original skeleton has been on display in Brussels for over 100 years, a complete replica will now be 3D printed and displayed in Lier.

We sat down with Mietje Germonpré, a paleontologist at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels who is specialized in mammals from the Ice Age, to get her insight on the mammoth of Lier and how 3D Printing is breathing new life into its age-old remains.

The Mammoth of Lier in its original 1886 set-up | © Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences

 

1. Can you tell us how the mammoth of Lier was found?

The mammoth was found during construction works along the Nete river. It became clear that this was an important discovery and the museum in Brussels was contacted. In total, remains from three mammoths were found, with one skeleton that was almost complete. The Institute decided to mount the skeleton to present it to the public, recreating the missing bones in wood. At the time, only St. Petersburg had a mounted mammoth skeleton, so the mammoth of Lier was the first of its kind to be displayed in Western Europe at the time.

 

2. How was the mammoth displayed in the museum?

The mounting was quite special! The museum created an external support structure which was quite innovative at the time. This had two consequences: the bones did not have to be drilled through (which would damage them), and each bone could be separated easily from the structure to study.

The Mammoth of Lier at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences | © Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences

3. How did you collaborate with Materialise?

I was contacted by Materialise and visited the company to look at the first scan of the mammoth skeleton together with the engineers. We had a general look at the virtual reconstruction and how the skeleton had been constructed in the 19th century, and we improved certain points. In a later phase the engineers came to the museum to study the mounted skeleton. We compared the reconstruction of associated bones such as the vertebral column or the lower arm with the original skeleton and thought about how it could be made more scientifically accurate.

4. How were you able to make the reconstruction more accurate?

The original mounting was done over 150 years ago, and our knowledge of a mammoth’s anatomy has improved since then. For example, in the 19th century they assumed the mammoth had a tail as long as that of an elephant, but due to frozen mammoth bodies found in Siberia, we now know that it’s actually shorter. This was really an opportunity to virtually adapt the skeleton to the new insights we have now on the anatomy. The missing bones were also originally sculpted in wood, but here we based the missing bones on a mirror image of existing bones, which makes them much more precise. 3D Printing has given us the opportunity to make a more accurate reconstruction of the mammoth.

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Printing the tusks on our Mammoth Stereolithography machines

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Digitally reconstructing the mammoth

5. What is the impact of 3D Printing in paleontology?

3D Printing and virtual reconstruction are very useful. If we have a very precious specimen, it’s easier and safer to work on an exact copy. There is less risk of damaging the part when you can work on a reconstruction. Also, a virtual reconstruction allows researchers all over the world to study the same specimen at the same time. And 3D Printing is often used to create the missing bones in a skeleton, but this project is unique because for the first time ever, we are printing an entire, life-size skeleton.

 

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The mammoth will be unveiled in Lier in September 2018. In the meantime, read more about our previous projects on King Tutankhamun and Ötzi – the famous “ice man” from the Stone Age.