3-D scanning, robotics will allow scientists to picture dinosaurs like never before
March 12, 2012By Carolyn Beeler
Photographs by Todd Vachon and Kimberly Paynter
The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, the oldest natural history museum in the country, celebrates its 200th anniversary this month.
When the Academy was still young, it created a sensation by displaying the first relatively complete dinosaur skeleton. Since that first mount, paleontologists now have more sophisticated tools to determine what dinosaurs looked like and how they moved.
Moving from art to science
The Hadrosaurus foulkii was discovered in 1858 at a farm in Haddonfield, N.J. After being named and catalogued, the bones were transported to quite a different place: the bustling workshop of artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins.
"His workshop itself was this big, wooden almost warehouse looking thing,” said Jason Poole, who runs dinosaur hall at the Academy of Natural Sciences. “You'd walk in and there would be sawdust on the floor, plaster dust on the floor…boxes of art tools and metal.”
Hawkins had planned to sculpt the dinosaur, but when he realized how much of the original skeleton was found, he and early paleontologist Joseph Leidy had an idea that was revolutionary at the time: Why not mount the real bones so everyone could see them?
“Their idea of dinosaurs before Hadrosaurus foulkii was like the rest of the world: these big reptiles. Question mark,” Poole said.
Poole said Hawkins packed the workshop with ostrich, kangaroo and lizard skeletons to use as reference, and had workmen lift up the 200-pound fossilized bones to figure out how they fit together.
Poole said the mount Hawkins and Leidy collaborated on was surprisingly accurate given how little was known at the time about dinosaurs.
“The original skeleton was mounted in that sort of classic Godzilla pose, it's got its tail very firmly on the ground, it's standing very upright," Poole said. "It looks very regal."
Now, paleontologists think Hadrosaurs walked with their backs parallel to the ground, either on four legs or close to it.
"Now with our understanding of dinosaurs and the way they used thair tails as a counterbalance for the front of their body, it looks almost silly to us,” Poole said.
Lab paleontology advances in recent years
Today, new technology makes figuring out what dinosaurs looked like and how they moved much more of a science than an art.
"The field part of paleontology hasn't changed much in 150 years, but the laboratory part has changed dramatically,” said Ken Lacovara, who is preparing a newly discovered dinosaur from Patagonia in his paleontology lab at Drexel University.
Unlike the bustling artist's studio of yesteryear, Lacovara’s lab is quiet and institutional-looking. Undergrads use X-ACTO knives to clean fossils. Lacovara is starting to use a 3-D scanner to create digital models of dinosaurs, which he will be able to use to fill in missing bones and overlay digital skeletons with computer-generated muscles.
He is also sending those scans down the street to a robotics lab, where James Tangorra, a mechanical engineering professor at Drexel, will make miniature models of the bones using a 3-D printer. With those tiny "bones," he will create a working robot.
"We set up a structure from the 3-D printing, then we'll be using different types of artificial muscles to actually execute some of the kinematic properties,” Tangorra said.
By "executing kinematic properties," Tangorra means testing hypotheses regarding how, exactly, dinosaurs would have moved.
Paleontologists have so far developed theories based on comparative anatomy -- looking at dinosaur bones and how modern animals walk.
Lacovara said computer modeling and the robots will allow scientists to test whether the ways they thought dinosaurs moved are physically possible, and the most effecient options.
"Could a dinosaur that weighed sixty tons run or trot, or is it limited to a slow kind of shuffle?” Lacovara asked. “Could a dinosaur that weights 60 tons and whose neck is two-and-a-half stories off the ground, could it raise its neck all the way up or would it pass out?"
Lacovara is so taken by the idea that he carried the first tiny 3-D printed bone around in his pocket for a month.
Legacy of Hadrosaurus runs deep at Academy
That same dinosaur awe has been around for more than a century, and is part of the reason the Academy of Natural Sciences is open for visitors today.
“When we first put Hadrosaurus foulkii up, it was in a reading room here at the Academy, where people were trying to do research,” Poole said. “We would allow people to come in and take a look at our curiosities, and we got so many people we would eventually start charging a nickel to turn them away, and that didn't work.”
Eventaully, the crowds prompted the Academy to create a public museum.
Schoolchildren still come in droves to see the cast of Hadrosaurus foulkii bones on display, now in a more accurate pose.
Upstairs, through winding corridors crowded with filing cabinets and old specimens, the original dinosaur skeleton sits in storage.