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Two million-year-old whale fossils printed with 3D technology

These are perfect plastic replicas of 20-foot-long, two million-year-old whale fossils.

These are perfect plastic replicas of 20-foot-long, two million-year-old whale fossils found in Chile.

These may look like real fossils, but they are actually perfect plastic replicas of 2 million-year-old whale skeletons made using a 3D printer.

This printing technology, which can create 3D versions of objects as diverse as a guns or the brain of a man with no memory, was hyped last week by President Obama when he said that 3D printing “has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything.”

The technology certainly saved the day for Smithsonian paleobiologist Nick Pyenson.

Pyenson had been finishing up a research trip in Chile in 2011 when he decided to check out a local highway construction site in the Atacama Desert where workers had supposedly uncovered dozens and dozens of whale skeletons.

“I didn’t really believe the rumors at first,” Pyenson says. But when he arrived, “It was unlike anything I’d ever seen.” Pyenson described the experience at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Boston.

Local museum officials were racing to dig out the skeletons before highway workers paved over the area, Pyenson says. Although the skeletons clearly needed to be removed, a problem with removal is that spatial information about different constellations of fossilized bones is then lost.

This information is essential for answering all sorts of interesting research questions, such as why so many whales died and were buried together two million years ago. For example, the whales could have swum into a bloom of toxic algae and died or they might have fallen victim to a landslide.

Pyenson went home to DC and immediately recruited the Smithsonian’s in-house 3D imaging and printing team (aka the Laser Cowboys), who came back with him to Chile and spent a week imaging the whale fossils with a high resolution laser scanner. The team then went home and began analyzing the fossil images.

They also also began printing out awesome replicas like the one you see above, which is many times smaller that the original. (The whale fossils span between 20-30 feet in real life.) Pyenson says the Smithsonian has industrial partners who will soon print out a full sized version pro bono, which would have otherwise cost the museum $1 million.

It seems Pyenson’s team has already figured out why all these whales died but he’s staying mum about it, while the scientific paper winds its way through the peer-review process—so stay tuned. Once the discovery is published, Pyenson says they’ll put the data online so others around the globe can access and analyze it.

Although this laser scanning and 3D printing could give researchers around the world the ability to study skeletons without physically handling them, old-school fossil analysis is in no danger of going extinct.

That’s because you need to have physical access to fossilized bones to identify whale species, Pyenson says, or to extract DNA–but probably not from these fossils because they are likely too old to bequeath intact samples.

For more on the cool whale graveyard discovery, check out this article in the Smithsonian from last year.

Laser cowboy Vince Rossi hard at work. Credit: Nick Pyenson

Laser cowboy Vince Rossi hard at work.
Credit: Nick Pyenson

1 Comment

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  • Feb 19th 201314:02
    by Carmen Drahl


    I wonder whether scaling down the 3D printed fossils might help the researchers see the bigger picture, as it were. Too bad we’ll have to wait for the details.

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