March of the Fossil Penguins

Fossil penguin discoveries and research

Brain in Hand

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Paleontologists today are lucky.  We have new tools that could only be dreamed of a few decades ago.  One of these is rapid prototyping, which allows us to create replicas of important fossils – or even models of structures that did not actually fossilize! In the case of the Paraptenodytes brain project, we were able to create an accurate physical model of the brain that can be studied, displayed, and shared with other scientists.  This is a great opportunity, because all we originally had was the skull.  Now, we have an endocast of the brain too, thanks to CT reconstruction. It is almost like creating a new “bonus” fossil.

How can this be done?  Rapid prototyping is basically 3D printing.  After loading up a digital file of the object to be printed, the prototyping machine builds the physical model layer by layer, using a nylon composite powder.  A laser is used to sinter the powder together. This means that the laser causes the atoms in the powder to diffuse across the boundaries of the particles, joining the layer together into a single piece without actually melting it.  A the end, we have an amazing model of a penguin brain.

A rapid prototype of a fossil penguin brain. Much more pleasant to hold in the hand than a real brain!

One of the great things about prototyping is that the files are digital, so they can be shared easily across long distances. I could transfer a copy of the Paraptenodytes brain files to a colleague in another country in a few minutes time and they could print one out in their lab. Another advantage of this technology is that unlimited copies can be made with no degradation – unlike the case of traditional molds, which slowly become less accurate with use due to wear and tear.  Finally, the prototypes can be made out of other materials besides nylon composites – stainless steel, ceramics, colored plastics and even silver are possible.  One day if I become a millionaire, I may treat myself to a solid gold Paraptenodytes brain.

Written by Dan Ksepka

August 20, 2012 at 2:22 pm

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  1. Ewan showed me the 3d copy of the Paraptenodytes brain you gave him a couple of weeks ago; there’s quite a bit of detail preserved. It is a damned nifty method. Another interesting use I’ve seen of 3d printing was the study of Aepyornis embryonic osteology that made it into a JVP memoir several years ago (2008, perhaps).


    August 22, 2012 at 3:41 am

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