From VT News | January 13, 2020

Virginia Tech paleontologists Sterling Nesbitt and Christopher Griffin travel to faraway lands to find adventure and prehistoric treasure, living their childhood dreams of learning more about what’s underfoot and illuminating deep history.

Nesbitt and Griffin, of the Department of Geosciences in the College of Science, venture into the wilderness of Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Zambia, Madagascar, and forests and fields around the world hunting for rare finds — dinosaur bones that no one else can access. Digging through the grit and partnering with remote museums, they collect fossilized bones, like from an unnamed dinosaur found in Zimbabwe. This new magnificent creature is a precursor of the long-necked dinosaurs, such as the small bipedal brachiosaurus. 

Christopher Griffin excavates fossilized dinosaur bones in Zimbabwe. Courtesy of Christopher Griffin.

After collection, the bones undergo a time-consuming cleaning process to prepare them for scanning. “Most of the bones are partially covered with a thin layer of rock. We use an air-powered needle that hums as it vibrates back and forth under a microscope and delicately knocks off the prehistoric rock without damaging the bone,” Griffin said. 

To make these invaluable finds digitally available for national and international scholars and citizens, Nesbitt and Griffin partner with University Libraries’ 3D Design Studio manager Max Ofsa to scan, digitize, print, and replicate these prehistoric bones using a modern form of paleontology.  

This work is revolutionary in the study of dinosaurs. The digitization gives a record of the bones and archives and conserves their shapes and forms. It also provides an opportunity for others to study, 3D print, and build upon previous research to further illuminate the lives of these prehistoric creatures. 

Traditionally, one would need to physically go to a museum to see and study fossils. “Being able to broadly and quickly apply these resources, 3D scanning has great implications in how we share information. We are able to offer the nuance and detail of real-world objects in a digital realm,” said Ofsa. 

Take Zimbabwe, for example. Zimbabwe is a difficult and expensive place to visit with an uncertain political climate, funding, and infrastructure. Because of this, their fossil bone collections are rarely examined or used. Now, thanks to Griffin’s and Nesbitt’s work and University Libraries’ 3D scanning expertise and technology, anyone can study Africa’s oldest known dinosaur excavated in Zimbabwe.

“Our philosophy is that all these bones don’t belong to anyone. This is all our equal history. Very few people ever get to see these bones in person,” said Nesbitt. “The University Libraries’ scanners are so good with extremely high resolution. This is the next best thing to holding the bone in your hand. This is as close as you can get to going to Zimbabwe yourself.” 

“I can scan a bone, send it to researchers in places like South America or the Smithsonian,” said Griffin. “They can download it instantly, look at it in three dimensions, and confirm what a fossil is or is not.”

Even with the time it takes to prepare the specimens, 3D scanning and printing are much faster than the traditional days of molding and casting. With the University Libraries’ technology, bones can be individualized, scanned in as little as 20 minutes, prepared for 3D printing, and rearticulated in two days or less. 

“With molding and casting, it would take at least a week, and the process adds potentially damaging material to the specimens because it has to touch rubber and glue. That’s not always healthy for the specimens,” said Nesbitt. “During scanning, you never touch the specimen, which keeps them intact.”

Dinosaur bones found by Virginia Tech paleontologists held by University Libraries' student employee Aurash Aidun.

Nesbitt and Griffin’s focus is studying the very first dinosaurs and other large reptiles that walked the planet. Their research breaks new ground in discovering that all dinosaurs started off very small, not the size of a bus, as Hollywood movies portray.  

Because Nesbitt and Griffin created global partnerships with remote museums, excavated sites across the world, and significantly built on previous paleontology research, Virginia Tech has a unique opportunity to share their knowledge with the world through technology.

“What we are scanning and printing, no one else has access to it. We have been involved in each step of the process,” said Griffin. “We scouted locations, traveled there, met with local museums and collaborators, hunted for bones, found the bones, dug them out of the ground, brought them back, cleaned them, scanned them, printed them, and published them. We are physically doing every part of the process.” 

Ofsa said one of his favorite projects with the paleontologists was Nesbitt’s discovery of a Suskityrannus hazelae partial skull. “This is one of the smallest known relatives of the well-known, crowd-pleasing beast Tyrannosaurus rex, and we’ve scanned it."

The University Libraries 3D Design Studio has the capability to use CT data to print the middle of a hollow specimen, like a dinosaur’s brain cavity. The technology can replicate the shape and print a 3D model of a 200 million-year-old animal brain. 

Aurash Aidun, 3D digitization assistant and library student employee, has scanned many of the dinosaur bones from Nesbitt and Griffin. “I’m passionate that my work in digitizing these specimens is helping join researchers worldwide and create a new dialogue on things that have been around for millions of years,” said Aidun. “I've done multiple projects for the library, ranging from my work here to the immersive environments studio, and I can say they've all been worthwhile in helping me build my craft as well as create cool things to be used by people in the university.” 

Many of these fossils can be viewed in the Virginia Tech Geosciences Museum in Derring Hall. Some of the collections are also featured in the Evolving Planet exhibit at The Field Museum in Chicago, the third-largest museum in the United States. The Field Museum received this Tanzania collection via 3D specimen scans completed by the University Libraries. The museum 3D printed the bones and created the exhibit. 

“The partnership with the library has been awesome and is invaluable. We provide objects that are interesting. Then when we combine that with the technology in the library, it is just a fantastic relationship,” said Nesbitt. “You can print all kinds of things. But printing a dinosaur bone that you can hold in your hand that only 10 people in the whole world have seen is special.”

Thanks to these emerging technologies available through the University Libraries, anyone can pursue their creative and academic passions and share them in interesting ways.

“Our 3D printing and scanning program is available to all patrons of the library, not just university colleges and departments,” said Ofsa. “Making higher-end technologies and expertise available to our undergraduate and graduate students and the community instills a certain level of importance to their projects and therefore self-importance to their own endeavors.”

-Written by Elise Monsour Puckett