For young students, the best introduction to palaeontology is probably the Natural History Museum. To see ancient, extinct beasts pieced together in the hallowed halls of the Victorian building, a shadow of their former glory but intimidating nonetheless, is awe-inspiring. Still, you cannot hold the bones, or really even get a sense of how they functioned.
Now, a tool built by the University of Michigan hopes to change all that, or at least get the public a little closer to the specimens that have been carefully unearthed and categorised. TheUniversity of Michigan Online Repository of Fossils features high-resolution photos, CT scans and photorealistic 3D imaging of a selection of its fossil collection, including a Mammut americanum (an ancient elephant-like beast from the Mammutidae family) that has been brought to life using all 245 of its bones.
"On this website we'll be providing 3D models that allow you to manipulate these objects onscreen and to do very much what we would do if we had the real specimen in our own hands -- zoom in on it, rotate it this way and that, and even make measurements of it," commented palaeontologist Daniel Fisher, who announced the launch at a conference in Greece.
The department has begun the mammoth task of cataloguing its specimens, using handheld digital scanners to capture them in high definition from all angles. It means you can spin the Mammut americanum 360 degrees with the flick of a cursor, or opt for different view settings (OrthoDors flips the camera so you get a bird's eye view of the beast). The team used the scans to build 3D models with exact dimensions, but also integrated the images captured to create the photorealistic studies.
"In many cases, especially for smaller specimens, you can see a lot more detail on the screen than you could if you were holding it in your hand," added Dan Miller, collections manager at the museum, in a statement. This is true also of the many fossil specimens that have been imaged separately.
The website's landing page has three options -- 3D invertebrates, 3D vertebrates and Image Galleries. The first has only four different groups right now, with more detailed information and 3D images of those seperate fossils. The University has a collection of more than 2 million specimens though, so expect more to come. Right now for vertebrates, it's just the Mammut americanum and a member of the Elephantidae family, the latter of which is broken down into bits.
With the Mammut americanum, you can click on any bone in the body. This will bring up the bone's name. Double click and the Bone Picker tool will let you extract the chosen piece and spin it round as you would the whole body. Click information, and you will pull up a description, and a brief of when and where it was discovered. You can select it to appear in anaglyph 3D, if you have your red and cyan specs to hand, or highlight axis lines to help with measurements. There's also an ortho measure function, but this did not appear to be working when Wired.co.uk sampled the site.
The Image Galleries feature an excellent selection of material, from vertebrate animations (including a view of an evacuation site as it was uncovered, and a CT scan of Lyuba, a female woolly mammoth calf and one of the best preserved specimens in the world), to illustrations and high-res photos.
The platform is foremost an educational tool designed to inspire new generations of palaeontologists. But as the massive catalogue grows, the site could become a database reference for all those working in the field.
"This will be invaluable to a researcher who has found an unidentified bone in the field," said Fisher. "The mastodon foot has about 35 bones, and some are not very distinctive. Using this tool, you can see the structure of the whole foot, then go in and pick out an individual bone and examine it closely, then look at the next one and the next one until you figure out what you have."
It might, also, mean one day we will get the tale of the snake that ate the dinosaur, online -- a fossil investigated by the University that shows how 67 million years ago a snake was about to pounce on a newly hatched sauropod dinosaur, when an avalanche hit and encased them both forever.
Source : www.wired.co.uk