Dr. Stephen Brusatte doesn’t use Materialise Mimics to study the human body – he uses it to improve his understanding of dinosaur fossils. As the leader of the Vertebrate Paleontology Research Group at the University of Edinburgh, Dr. Brusatte is fascinated by one dinosaur species in particular: the Tyrannosaurus rex, infamous king of the dinosaurs and terrifying predator.
Dr. Brusatte’s research is focused on how evolution works over widespread time-scales – the aim is to spot patterns and trends across the ages, and fossils are the only way to study such an extensive time period. This means that Dr. Brusatte’s work starts at the paleontological dig site, where he and his team uncover the bones of creatures long dead. Back at his lab, Dr. Brusatte needs to analyze the data to create an accurate picture of what the dinosaur was like when it was alive. How did T. rex (or its close relatives) function at this point in time? How does it tie in to the facts supplied by other T. rex fossils? These are all questions Dr. Brusatte needs to answer, and one of the richest sources of information is the head of the fossil. The inside of the skull is often well preserved, presenting blood vessels, nerves, sinuses and ears all waiting to be explored. Previously, scientists were required to physically cut open fossil skulls to reach this information, meaning that the specimen was often damaged in the process and precious data was lost. But the development of scans and 3D technology has proved to be a gamechanger for paleontologists. Dr. Brusatte scans his fossils and then uses Materialise Mimics to make a 3D model of the specimen. He can study the complete anatomy of the fossil in 3D without ever having to damage it – and if he wants to collaborate with a colleague on the case, it’s simply a matter of sending the digital file on a computer. As he told us,
“The CT scanning of fossils has become an invaluable tool, a standard tool. 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.”
Currently, Dr. Brusatte is working on a smaller species of tyrannosaur, a cousin of T. rex, which shows that these dinosaurs weren’t always the massive predators we imagine them to be. It wasn’t immediately obvious the fossilized bones were even related to the T. rex– until Dr. Brusatte scanned them and 3D printed them. The shape of the brain cavity, the sinuses and the ears all showed an uncanny similarity to those of T. rex, proving the link. And this discovery also means Dr. Brusatte can continue to fill in the evolutionary puzzle of the tyrannosaurs: they most likely started our as smaller predators, but their well-developed brains and heightened senses slowly helped them evolve into the fearsome king of the dinosaurs!