Printing a Dinosaur

Written by Alex Peaker, Assistant Community Learning Officer (Palaeontologist/Geologist), at Dinosaur Isle, on the Isle of Wight.

Neovenator animatronic at Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum. © Alex Peaker. Please click on the image for a larger version.

In November 2017, Dinosaur Isle General Manager and Curator Martin Munt organised for the holotype of Neovenator salerii to be displayed at the Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum in Japan as part of their exhibition Theropods: From Carnivorous Dinosaurs to Flying Birds.

As part of the project, Fukui Museum would be displaying a reproduction of the Neovenator skeleton and some of the original bones held by Dinosaur Isle. I was tasked with aiding the disassembly and reassembly of the skeleton for scanning, and packaging the original specimens that were to be loaned to the Fukui Museum.

Neovenator is a large predatory dinosaur that may be found in other fossil sites in Southern England and France but has only been positively identified on the Isle of Wight. Dinosaur Isle holds a good amount of Neovenator including the most complete individual so far discovered (the holotype), as well as a couple of partial skeletons that were made paratypes, and numerous isolated remains.

The initial discovery of the holotype was made on the South West coast of the Island in the late 1970s by private collectors, with later excavations made by staff and volunteers from Dinosaur Isle. Although most of the specimen was collected for Dinosaur Isle, some of the bones found by private collectors were acquired by the Natural History Museum London. The majority of the skeleton was found, with a representative of most of the bones other than the arms; no upper limb material was ever found.

The holotype held by Dinosaur Isle is on display and presented in an armature (taking claim for the largest mounted theropod in the UK) with a combination of real, cast, and sculpted bones. Working with my colleague Gary Blackwell we assessed the armature to find the best way to safely dismantle it for scanning, and with assistance from several volunteers we fully recorded and dismantled the armature in two days. Key to the process was making notes of any joints, how the frame and bones were secured, how the weight of the bones affected the armature, and the order in which everything came apart which all made the re-mounting a fairly smooth process.

Neovenator holotype on display at Dinosaur Isle; a composite of real, cast, and sculpted bones. © Dinosaur Isle. Please click on the image for a larger version.

The scanning was done by Southampton based company Replicate 3D who used photogrammetry to record all of the specimens. Photogrammetry is a process where photos are taken from numerous angles to create a sphere of photos with more accurate scans being produced with a larger quantity of high resolution photos. The images are processed by programs which use specific markers (either marks placed on the bones or certain features of the bones) to merge the sphere of photos into one 3D image.

Adrian and Aaran of Replicate 3D scanning the sculpted skull. © Dinosaur Isle. Please click on the image for a larger version.

The detail that can be reproduced through photogrammetry relies on the quality of the cameras used, with higher resolutions producing scans with greater detail. The specific equipment that Replicate 3D used for the scan produced replicas that were equal in standard to, if not more detailed than, replicas produced by standard casting methods.

For elements that have not been found, different techniques were used to fill in the blanks for our mounted Neovenator. The forelimbs are replicas based on the arms of the closely related Allosaurus (as they were completely missing in the specimens that have been found). The pelvic girdle of the holotype was not complete, so the paratype specimens were utilised. The spinal column was also not complete and so some bones (the missing cervicals) were made based on Allosaurus, whilst other vertebrae (caudals and dorsals) were replaced with casts of the vertebrae closest to them in the sequence.

There are many advantages to using 3D scanning for reproducing mounted skeletons like this. In the case of missing bones such as the caudals, rather than using direct casts, the nearest vertebrae can be scaled up or down to make the mount more realistic (rather than have 3 or 4 of the same vertebra in a row). Having 3D models allows for further manipulation, and so things like the sacrum and pelvis (where the model was made as one piece), or the fused vertebrae (pathological bones where two vertebrae have become one), can be digitally split to re-posture the skeleton as desired.

It took just under two weeks (very full days, 7 days a week!) to produce the data for the models, with several more days’ work to process the data and turn it into usable 3D models. As the models were created the specimens were re-mounted and the armature put back together, with the entire skeleton being back on display in just over 2 weeks.

Some problems we came across during the project included:

  • The skeleton having bones in the wrong places
  • Repositioning the bones on the armature
  • Labelling of the specimens
  • Flexure of the armature

In some cases we found that bones had been repeated in the mount when they didn’t need to be (i.e. having the same caudal vertebra multiple times), and some of the bones had been mis-labelled. This was overcome by making comparisons to the original and more recent monographs of Neovenator, so that we could correctly re-label the specimens, and put the skeleton back together again as accurately as possible.

Although we recorded the original layout of the skeleton in detail, when we put it together again some bones just didn’t want to fit! The biggest problem came from one of the femora; it appeared the weight of the skeleton had bent the armature over the years. When we re-mounted it, some of the cradles were worked into new positions and extra supports added to better support the bones, and extra padding was added to the mount to prevent damage.

Design Drawings. © Mono Co., Ltd. Please click on the image for a larger version.

As part of the project, Dinosaur Isle loaned some of the Holotype and Paratype specimens of Neovenator to the Fukui Museum for display alongside the mounted 3D printed skeleton. These specimens were packed in plastazote, placed in Peli Crates, and transported by courier to the Fukui Museum where Dinosaur Isle Curator and General Manager Martin Munt unpacked them and helped Fukui Museum to finish the displays.

The Neovenator metatarsals packed in plastazote. © Dinosaur Isle. Please click on the image for a larger version.


A fully packed Peli Crate ready to be shipped to Japan. © Dinosaur Isle. Please click on the image for a larger version.

The following text is from Soki Hattori, a vertebrate palaeontologist at the Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum and one of the primary co-ordinators of the Neovenator project:

Our printed model is made from a nylon powder fused by the selective laser sintering method. The printer is housed in the Industrial Technology Center of Fukui Prefecture. The range of print is about 30 centimeters square. Therefore, some large digital models were separated into several parts in advance. They were adhered and painted after the printing. We also made a design drawing for the display by arranging screenshots of the digital models. In that drawing, we aligned all bones (including some copies without altering sizes) basically following the filename of each model (probably based on the skeleton mounted in Dinosaur Isle Museum), and modified a little based on the monograph by Brusatte et al. (2008) Fukui Museum adopted a different posture to the skeleton at Dinosaur Isle, mounting each cast separately on the steel frame. All of these works were done in collaboration with Mono Co., Ltd.

The printed model alongside the holotype material on display at the Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum. © Alex Peaker. Please click on the image for a larger version.

The exhibition ran between July and October, in 2018. Over this three month period, the special exhibition received over 260,000 visitors and was hailed as a great success. With the addition of other replica skeletons and real fossil material from numerous other museums across the world, it was a magnificent exhibition. Neovenator was used as the main focus point with much of the advertising and merchandise featuring this species. The entrance to the whole exhibit had a purpose built Neovenator animatronic (see image at start of blog). Artwork for the entrance also featured Neovenator, as well as another Isle of Wight species, Baryonyx. More information on the exhibition can be found on the Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum website.

In October 2018, I travelled to Japan to facilitate the return of our specimens. In the two days that I was there, the majority of the exhibition was taken down, with other models being packed away for storage and the original fossils being shipped back to their respective museums. All of the Neovenator fossils were re-photographed prior to their return, and repackaged in their original crates. The process was very quick with the detail of the original records making it a simple task.

Overlooking the galleries at the Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum. © Alex Peaker. Please click on the image for a larger version.

The Fukui province does a great job of promoting palaeontology. When you leave the train station you are greeted by full size animatronic dinosaurs on public display There are dinosaur billboards everywhere, and even car license plates have dinosaurs on them. Fukui is the only region in Japan that has dinosaurs and so they have been used as a focal point for attracting visitors.

Animatronic dinosaurs outside Fukui station. © Alex Peaker. Please click on the image for a larger version.

A week later the fossils arrived back at Dinosaur Isle in the same condition as they left and the original material is now back on display or in storage accordingly, and the 3D printed Neovenator is in Japan ready to be used for further displays.

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