March of the Fossil Penguins

Fossil penguin discoveries and research

3D scans of penguin bones

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Today we have a special guest post by Dr. Daniel Thomas of Massey University, master of penguin pigments and  longtime collaborator on African penguins and penguin counter-current heat exchangers.

The wings bones of a little blue penguin (Eudyptula minor) have been 3D scanned.

The wing bones of a little blue penguin (Eudyptula minor) have been 3D scanned.

Imagine you have travelled to a remote location and have discovered a fossil penguin bone – your first question will almost certainly be, ‘what species does this bone belong to?’ To find your answer you will need to compare your fossil to bones from other penguins, which will let you know if it belongs to a known species or if you have discovered a new fossil penguin. This was the scenario that Dan Ksepka and I encountered in South Africa, and we were fortunate to have access to the bone collection in Iziko Museum, Cape Town. While we were able to make most of our comparisons at Iziko, there were a few important comparisons that would have to wait for visits to other collections. Every museum can’t have every bone after all.

But what if you had digital versions of bones to work with? What if you could virtually borrow Museum specimens? A 3D scan of a bone has major advantages over photos as you can see the bone from any angle you wish, you can study the bone across a range of scales, and as strange as this may sound, you can view the morphology of the bone without being distracted by lighting or surface colouration. You could store your comparative collection on a laptop or in the cloud, and take it wherever there was electricity and/or internet access.

It’s an intriguing idea, and if you haven’t already done so, check out the incredible 3D scanning work that paleontologist Nick Pyenson has been doing at the Smithsonian Institution.

In recent years 3D scanning has become cheaper and more accessible. There are drawbacks to producing a 3D digital collection of course – it can take a long time to produce each file and you need specialised software + equipment + knowledge to produce a high-quality replica – but I think the idea of producing a 3D digital collection has promise.

This is why I have started scanning the bones of a little blue penguin (the species most common in my native Auckland, New Zealand). High-fidelity models of a left humerus, a left radius and a left ulna have been produced so far. A full set of wing bones is also available, but at lower resolution. These models are hosted on Sketchfab so they are free to view and they don’t require specialised software or browser plugins. You can check them out here:
https://sketchfab.com/nzfauna/models or http://www.nzfauna.ac.nz/#!3d/cdvz

The left humerus from a little blue penguin (Eudyptula minor). The 3D digital model can be viewed on Sketchfab.

The left humerus from a little blue penguin (Eudyptula minor). The 3D digital model can be viewed on Sketchfab.

I want a digital collection of bones available for my own research, and I am hoping that other researchers will find them useful as well.

Now… imagine travelling to a remote location and discovering a fossil penguin bone. You open your laptop and scroll through your 3D digital collections. Have you made a new discovery?

Written by Dan Ksepka

February 3, 2015 at 6:45 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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