Opalized Dinosaur Fossil Studied Using 3D Printing Technology

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According Cosmos magazinepaleontologists from Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia, have used cutting-edge micro-CT and 3D-printing technology to look inside an unusual 100-million-year-old opalized dinosaur fossil .

In a rare find, collectors unearthed fossils of a small dinosaur that had become opalized. They think it could be a new species of Australian dinosaur. The dinosaur was a small bipedal herbivore called a “hypsilophodont”. The fossils were found in the opal mining town of Lightning Ridge in outback New South Wales and were recovered and saved for scientific study in 2019.

Senior paleontologist, Associate Professor Paul Willis mounts specimens in polystyrene stacks prior to digitization. Credit: Paleo Photos.

A collaboration between the Australian Opal Center at Lightning Ridge and the documentary team at Palaeo Pictures, led by Flinders University associate professor Paul Willis, will see the dinosaur reconstructed from the opalized fossils.

Paleontologists from Flinders University in Adelaide have used micro-CT scanning and 3D printing technology to study an opalized dinosaur fossil
The bones are preserved as common opal, or potch, and are mostly set in a white sandstone. Credit: Paleo Photos.

Opals form when silicon dioxide dissolved in water trickles through the earth until it reaches the cavities of rocks. Once the water has evaporated, a silica deposit remains. Sometimes the cavities in which opals form are there because a living thing was buried in sand or clay before hardening into stone. The opal forms in the mold leaving behind the fossil replica of the creature.

Fossils found at Lightning Ridge are often colorless and “worthless” (monetarily speaking) potch. But, sometimes the fossils are made up of precious opal – even the precious black opal – and have a very high value. But Willis insists that all fossil specimens are “invaluable” to science.

His team began using the latest imaging technologies to learn more about the animal that left the tracks. “We are using the Flinders CT Scanning Facility in Tonsley to look inside blocks of rock that contain the remains of a small dinosaur,” Willis said.

The scans show the preserved dinosaur fossil in exquisite detail. “Not only do the scans give us a better understanding of exactly what dinosaur skeleton we have, but they will be invaluable in the next step of studying this specimen, removing the surrounding rock,” Willis continued. “Before using scans on specimens like this, removing the surrounding rock was largely ‘doing it blind’, groping to reveal the bones. Now we can do it with more confidence because we know where the rock stops and the bone begins.

Paleontologists from Flinders University in Adelaide have used micro-CT scanning and 3D printing technology to study an opalized dinosaur fossil
On the right is the opal fossil still in the rock and on the left is a 3D print of the fossil generated from the CT scans. Credit: Paleo Photos.

About 20% of opalised dinosaur fossil specimens have been scanned so far. Once the rest has been processed, the team will work on a detailed study of the skeleton and produce, thanks to 3D printing, the most complete reconstruction possible from the pieces of the puzzle.

Paleontologists hope the reconstruction will reveal whether it is indeed a new species of dinosaur, and then attempt to bring the fossils back to “life” by learning how the animal lived and died.

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