3D Printed Fossils

It’s been several weeks since my last post about art and fossils, but I have not been idle – oh no! Following on from previous posts on this blog outlining my strategy for using virtual fossils as a tool for public engagement, I’ve been hard at work creating the resource that will help me achieve this.

The most exciting development in recent weeks is that I’ve managed to obtain 3-D prints of a select few fossils, meaning I now have my very own virtual fossils sitting proud on my desk. Even the geologists are jealous! I have learnt a lot about 3-D printing during this period; most especially about the different machines and materials that are used for printing objects. In this post, I will focus on a plastic model of a fossil ammonite, which was printed at the Jewellery and Industry Innovation Centre (JIIC), Birmingham City University. Special thanks to Keith Adcock and Frank Cooper at the JIIC for all their help with this.

The ammonite in question is a 165-million-year-old fossil from near Fairford, a small town in Gloucestershire, England. Ammonites are common marine fossils from the Palaeozoic and Mesozoic eras, and are familiar to more or less anyone who has even a passing interest in palaeontology. This specimen is the same one that served as inspiration for the artistic transformation described in my previous post. The fossil was CT scanned at the Natural History Museum, London and then reconstructed as a virtual fossil on a ‘normal’ desktop PC using freely available software.

After a bit of work ‘cleaning’ this digital fossil, again using free software, it was ready for 3-D printing. The fossil was built as a physical object on an Objet Eden350, which uses photopolymer jetting technology to print in horizontal layers around one hundredth of a millimetre thick, and hence models are highly detailed, accurate and clean. The material used for printing was a rigid opaque plastic known as VeroWhitePlus, which is tough and durable. After printing, support material was carefully removed from the object, and it was hand painted white to give a nice, uniform finish:

3D Print of Ammonite

3D Print of Fossil Ammonite.

The 3-D print, pictured above, retains fine details of the original fossil, including the intricate growth lines. Build lines are not prominent owing to their sub-millimetre spacing; however, vertical layering is apparent in places – this is a product of the CT scanning process, as the virtual fossil was originally generated from several hundred closely spaced slice images, and these slices could not be smoothed in the computer reconstruction without obscuring fossil details. Nevertheless, I’m very pleased with the overall build quality, and will most likely use this machine/material combination for the majority of the models I print.

Coming next time, metal fossils!

3D Print of Crabs

3D Print of Fossil Crabs.

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Art Meets (Virtual) Fossils

So far, I’ve explained how to create a computer reconstruction of a fossil, as well as how to print a physical replica of one. In this last introductory post, I will detail the third and final part of the resource for public engagement that I’m developing. This post is going to be a little artier than I’m used to, so I’ve enlisted some help from Dr Myfanwy Johns, Leverhulme Artist in Residence at the University of Birmingham.

Fossil Cephalopod

Fossil Cephalopod from Madagascar.

As every professional and amateur palaeontologist knows, fossils can be quite beautiful to look at, and this is perhaps one of the reasons we are so fascinated by them. Since the very beginning of palaeontology, scientists and artists have worked together to produce detailed and realistic drawings of fossils, and sometimes even reconstructions of what they might have looked like when they were alive. Of course, art isn’t just about producing the most accurate possible depiction of an object, as Dr Johns explains: “Objects and structures that have been lost and found are of interest to me – these could be fragments of broken china dug up while gardening, or fossils discovered after many millions of years languishing on the sea floor. My explorations of this material have led to new interpretations of old surfaces.”

When we combine cutting-edge computer technology with artistic thought, we are able to produce some remarkable transformations. The image below shows a computer-designed artistic transformation of internal growth lines in a fossil ammonite – the fossil was originally imaged using CT scanning and reconstructed as a 3-D virtual fossil, which was then transformed by Dr Johns:

Artistic Transformation of a Fossil Ammonite

Artistic Transformation of a Fossil Ammonite.

So, from the insides of a fossil to a bowl, although perhaps not one that you could eat out of! Take it away, Dr Johns: “The ammonite’s internal structure is delicate and lace-like, perfectly preserved in an undisturbed state. CT scanning uncovers these hidden structures and opens up a previously unobtainable world. The scanning process divides the ammonite into thin slices which reveal the interior structure as a ground plan, and this is where I intervened and manipulated the plan into a digital sculptural form.”

There you have it; art and palaeontology make for a great couple. To sum up my first three posts on this blog then, over the next few months I will be developing a virtual palaeontology resource for science communication that will consist of: (1) computer reconstructions of fossils, (2) physical 3-D prints of fossils and (3) digital artistic transformations of fossils. I’m really excited about this project because it’s totally different to anything that’s ever been done before in palaeontological outreach. If it’s successful, I’d like to think this will inspire other scientists to carry out similar activities, enhancing science communication in palaeontology and evolution. Well, that’s the plan anyway, I’m sure there will be a few ups and downs in the coming weeks as I work to make all this happen. You’ll be able to follow my progress right here!

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Not Just Computers!

In my previous post, I discussed how virtual fossils are potentially a great tool for getting people interested in palaeontology. Moreover, they are made routinely by some scientists as part of their research, and thus may already be available for use. Viewing this material on a computer is a nice way of looking at fossils in 3-D, and displays can even be projected onto large screens in red-green anaglyph:

Anaglyph image of a virtual fossil echinoderm (red-green 3-D glasses required).

Anaglyph image of a virtual fossil echinoderm (red-green 3-D glasses required).

This isn’t the only way of using virtual fossils for science communication, however. You see, computer models (when in the correct format) can be used as a basis for printing real, three-dimensional, physical objects that you can literally hold in your hand. This is done through 3-D printing, where objects are created by laying down successive layers. These machines can print in a range of colours and materials, including plastic, metal and resin, and models can be larger or smaller than life-size. The end result is a highly accurate model of a fossil, as shown in this video about 3-D printing a dinosaur skull:


This website shows a few more examples for fossil vertebrates, produced by the University of Texas. There are also several companies that will create a 3-D print of any computer model you give them. Even better news is that 3-D printers are becoming increasingly cheap and available, and some are now being made for domestic use. So, one day soon, you might be able to print a personalized virtual fossil – all in the comfort of your own home!

Drum roll, please. The second part of the resource I’m creating for public engagement in palaeontology will consist of…you guessed it, 3-D prints of fossils. The third and final part will be covered in my next post.

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Virtual Palaeontology: What’s It All About?

Yesterday, something quite brilliant happened. An application for funding that I had written was approved, meaning I now have the money to carry out a project that I am very enthusiastic about. What is this project, I hear you ask (or not)? Well, it involves computers, art, 3-D and dead creatures. Intrigued now? Read on!

Fossils, the remains of once-living animals, plants and other organisms, provide us with our only direct record of pre-historic life. They are studied by palaeontologists – scientists who use fossils and other lines of evidence to reconstruct the history of life on Earth. Palaeontology is also of great interest to many non-scientists, and there is a certain fascination to be had imagining what long-extinct animals such as dinosaurs, trilobites and woolly mammoths were like when they were alive.

One of the main difficulties with using fossils to engage the public with science is that the most spectacular specimens are exceptionally rare and often very fragile. As a result, these extraordinary fossils are typically locked away in museums for safekeeping, and are not widely accessible. With this in mind, the aim of this project is to develop a resource that will allow anyone, not just scientists, to view and interact with fossils.

Sounds like a tall order, eh? Well, actually, all the tools needed to do this are now readily available to scientists. Using CT scanning, we can create 3-D computer reconstructions of fossils without causing any damage to the original specimens. These ‘virtual fossils’ are fantastic! They can be spun, zoomed and dissected in a way no real fossil allows. This video by Dr Russell Garwood explains the process perfectly:


Nice, huh? One clear advantage of virtual fossils is because they are digital objects, anyone with a computer can view and interact with them. All the time, the original fossil remains safe from harm. So, the first part of the resource I’m developing will involve computer reconstructions of exceptionally preserved, 3-D fossils. Read all about the second part in my next post!

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