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Hand-held scanners and 3-D printers are the stuff of the 21st century, but they're also unraveling mysteries that go back millions of years.
What did that 1.8 million-year-old giant crocodile from Kenya look like? How did Dreadnoughtus, one of the world's largest dinosaurs, get around 77 million years ago? How could Spinosaurus swim in the rivers of prehistoric Africa 95 million years ago?
Fossilized bones can provide the clues to answer these questions, but those bones are usually too precious to be handled by all the researchers who are in on the case. Sometimes, the bones just can't be moved. That's where scanners and 3-D visualization tools come to the rescue.
"The sky's the limit to imagine what can be done right now," Artem Yukhin, chief executive officer of Artec Group, told NBC News.
High-tech imaging has been providing new perspectives on ancient wonders for years now. Aerial laser-scanning surveys have revealed lost cities in Honduras and Cambodia. Infrared satellite imagery has helped scientists identify lost pyramids in Egypt. 3-D scanning and 3-D printing are opening the way for recreations of King Tut's tomb, Mexico's underwater Hoyo Negro cave and the Stone Age masterpieces of France's caves of Lascaux.
But paleontologists are taking the technology to new frontiers — and Artec, a California-based company that makes 3-D scanners, is right in the middle of it.
Preserving the past
This summer, Artec's experts worked alongside paleontologist Louise Leakey and her team for two weeks to document the 1.8 million-year-old fossils found at Turkana Lake in Kenya. Yukhin said collaborating with Leakey on the dig was the fulfillment of a childhood dream.
"There were some important fossils of ancient animals that were found when she was a girl, 15 or 20 years ago or more," Yukhin said. "For some fossils, they even built a building around them, but it's impossible to move them. They're affected by weather, and more importantly, by people. When they came to the site this time, the fossils were not only touched, they were partially destroyed."
Artec's two-person team used two types of hand-held scanners, known as Eva and Spider, to create computerized 3-D renderings of the site's fossils, including the bones of a giant tortoise, an extinct species of giant elephant and giant crocodiles.
"The idea was to go to the field and understand how fast and easy it is to scan," Yukhin said. "They were planning to go there for four or five days, but they scanned everything in one day."
For good measure, the Artec team also scanned the Turkana Basin Institute's collection of hominid skulls, including the famous (and controversial) Turkana Boy.
Yukhin acknowledged that Artec's scanners aren't the sorts of items you can pick up at Best Buy. The list price starts at $14,000 or so, and that's not including software. But like most other technologies, 3-D scanning is more affordable, and more portable, than it was just a few years ago.
"We want the camera to be even cheaper and more accessible," he said. "We want to democratize this technology."
From virtuality to reality
Once the fossils are scanned into the computer, they can be manipulated and pieced together in virtual 3-D space, where there's no risk of damaging the original. "Of course you can 3-D-print it, you can make replicas, you can study the dynamics," Yukhin said.
That's exactly what Drexel University paleontologist Kenneth Lacovara and his colleagues are doing with their 3-D-scanned virtual skeleton of Dreadnoughtus schrani, which ranked among the largest land animals when it lived in Argentina 77 million years ago. "We took great pains to laser-scan all of these fossils," Lacovara told NBC News.
A robotics team at Drexel is now turning the virtual bones into a one-tenth-scale, 3-D-printed skeleton with artificial muscles attached. That will help researchers figure out how Dreadnoughtus moved its 65-ton bulk around. And speaking of democratization ... Lacovara's team has made the 3-D files available freely online.
"Anyone in the world can download virtual copies of the Dreadnoughtus bones," Lacovara said. The files have been viewed more than 23,000 times since Lacovara made them available on Sept. 4.
Filling the gaps
The strange case of Spinosaurus aegyptiacus is another example showing how 3-D scans can help solve a mystery. When a treasure trove of Spinosaurus bones was discovered in the Moroccan Sahara, paleontologists used CT scans to build a digital reconstruction of the 50-foot-long (15-meter-long) beast.
To fill in the skeletal gaps, they created virtual bones based on detailed sketches that German paleontologist Ernst Stromer made of the bones he found in Egypt a century ago. The bones themselves were destroyed during Allied bombing in World War II, but the virtual renderings added valuable pieces to the Spinosaurus puzzle.
"The remaining missing bones were extrapolated between known bones, or estimated from closely related dinosaurs," Simone Maganuco of the Natural History Museum of Milan told reporters.
Working with the 3-D reconstruction led the research team to conclude that Spinosaurus was well-adapted for swimming through the rivers and swamps that existed in North Africa 95 million years ago — but would walk with an ungainly, waddling gait on land.
Now Spinosaurus' virtual skeleton has been transformed into a real-world replica that's currently on display at the National Geographic Museum in Washington. The actual bones will be returned to Morocco for museum display, but paleontologists around the world can continue to use the virtual skeleton in hopes of learning more of Spinosaurus' secrets.
"One of the things we're really interested in is how exactly this dinosaur moved in the water," University of Chicago paleontologist Nizar Ibrahim told reporters. "There's no good modern-day equivalent for this, and you know, it's like working on an extraterrestrial. ... So one of the things we would like to do is use our digital skeleton to learn more about the possible swimming styles of Spinosaurus."