Models of the Past

Photo by Max Catalano

Photo by Max Catalano

Eleanor Bishop

Some 95 million years ago, a long-necked dinosaur grazed peacefully in present-day Argentina, unaware that one day it would be the sole representative of its kind.

Fast forward to 2016 when a team of paleontologists from the Universidad Nacional de la Patagonia San Juan Bosco unearthed the skull and partial neck bone of the never-before-seen species of dinosaur.

Sarmientosaurus, as the species was later named, was a genus of sauropod dinosaurs known for their long necks, enormous size and affinity for plants. Although at one time they may have been some of the most common large herbivores in the southern hemisphere, sauropod skulls are an extremely rare find.

The fossils of an undocumented dinosaur species are no small discovery, but for Dr. Larry Witmer, a professor of anatomy and paleontology at Ohio University, bones are only the beginning.

“We basically want to understand how dinosaurs work, [but] the bones don’t really do anything themselves,” Witmer says. “So we need to, in a sense, reconstruct the soft tissues, all the things time stripped away: muscles, blood vessels, nerves, brains, things like that, to understand their function and their behavior.”

Witmer calls this process “fleshing out fossils.”

Scientists can work backward with bones, using the negative spaces in fossils to reconstruct how tissues would have formed inside and around the bone.

The problem? The fossils have been sitting underground for millions of years, and thus they “show their age,” says Witmer.

The fossils archeologists uncover are often fragmented and encased in rock, making it difficult to draw a complete picture. Scientists can create virtual models of these fossils by running the fragments through CT scans. Then, they fill in the missing bones and digitally recreate the muscles and other soft tissues as they likely appeared.

For years, Witmer and his lab used that method to make “fleshed out” virtual models, but in 2013 OU’s Innovation Center obtained a machine that would transform their process: a state-of-the-art 3D printer.

When it comes to growing a technology company from the ground up, Southeast Ohio lacks the resources of Silicon Valley, but OU’s Innovation Center breaks that barrier. In 1983, Dr. Wilfred R. Konneker founded the center with the help of then-OU President Dr. Charles J. Ping. The duo was committed to aiding economic growth in Athens and beyond

“They recognized way ahead of their counterparts across the country at that point that there was a need, because Appalachian Ohio was—and still is—one of the poorest areas in the country,” says Innovation Center Director Stacy Strauss. “There was a need to harvest the resources of the university, whether it be human capital, research, resources [or] equipment to create more of an economic impact.”

The center provides office space, technology, mentorship and other services to fledgling tech companies that are often starting out as a one-person endeavor. In return, it attracts potential students and staff to the university with opportunities to intern with the companies and to use the center’s cutting-edge equipment.

The 3D printer, which is one of three housed in the center, was purchased in collaboration with nine university colleges.Th e printer’s joint ownership means that although it is a resource available to Innovation Center clients, it is also widely used by students, professors and members of the community. The website allows any prospective users to email their design to the center’s lab director and receive a quote for the cost.

Student interns from the Russ College of Engineering and Technology — one of the colleges that contributed to the purchase of the printer — are on staff to help clients who may have limited knowledge of 3D printing technology.

“It’s a pretty unique opportunity that we have,” Strauss says. “Sometimes our clients just have an idea in their head, and so then our students will sit down with them, draw something on a napkin and then go to the computer and write the code that the printer can read.”

The printer is the largest “for 70 miles in either direction,” Strauss says. It creates models out of photopolymer resin, a plastic-like substance that changes from liquid to solid through the printing process. An image is broken down into microscopic layers and constructed in a process that can take anywhere from 30 minutes to 40 hours, depending on the size and complexity of the design.

“It’s great for something that requires a lot of detail,” she says. Something like a dinosaur bone, perhaps.

Witmer was an early adopter of 3D printing technology and jumped at the chance to take advantage of the Innovation Center’s new resource.

“I was one of their first users and probably their first big job,” he says. “I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the things they’ve done for me remain the largest and most complex jobs they’ve done.”

By working with the information from the CT scans, Witmer and his lab can now print life-size models of the fossils in their most complete forms.

This technology proved applicable when the sarmientosaurus was discovered 5,000 miles away.

In collaboration with the Argentinian scientists who discovered the fossils and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Witmer and his research associate Ryan Ridgely printed models of the dino’s skull and brain. Examining the structure of the sarmientosaurus’ brain has helped scientists to better understand the behaviors of sauropods.

The printed skulls can be seen on display at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and at Witmer’s lab in Athens.

Witmer’s lab and the center have also worked with the fossils of arguably the most well-known species of dinosaur: the Tyrannosaurus rex.

In 2015, Witmer got a call from the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana. The museum was developing a new T. rex exhibit and heard that Witmer had CT scans of the dinosaur. The museum’s curators wanted to include a baby T. rex skeleton in the exhibit but faced a significant problem.

“Baby skulls of anything are very rare for fossils records,” Witmer says. “Something like T. rex is extremely rare.”

With only fragments of a young T. rex’s lower jaw, they originally called to ask Witmer if he could print a scaled-down version of a full size T. rex to stand in place for the baby dinosaur. Witmer had a better offer: he and Ridgely would use the Innovation Center’s printer to create their own model of a baby T. rex skull.

Witmer and Ridgely ran the baby jaw fragments through a CT scanner at OU and used that information, the skull of a teenage T. rex and the slightly damaged skull of a young Tyrannus relative from Mongolia to compile a digital model of his “best estimate of what a baby T. rex skull would look like,” Witmer says.

The museum commissioned one model which was printed at the Innovation Center and is currently on display in Colorado. Another copy sits in Witmer’s office.

“What’s kind of cool is that the Museum of the Rockies fully acknowledged not just Ryan Ridgely and me, but also Ohio University and the Innovation Center as partners in the project that brought that to the exhibit,” he says.

3D printing has had a transformative effect on Witmer’s work, particularly in the way he is able to collaborate more interactively with other scientists and use his models to make dinosaurs come alive for the public.

“We don’t live in a virtual world,” Witmer says. “Sometimes it seems like we do, but we really exist in [the] physical world, and we’re much better able to connect with people in that physical world, so that’s been very effective.”

Although creatures like the sarmientosaurus may never again roam the Earth, Witmer’s lab is doing what they can to save their memory from extinction.

“[With the 3D printer] we can bring things out ofthe computer and into the physical world where we all live,” Witmer says.