3D printing is especially useful for sauropod workers

September 28, 2022

This is the first 3D print of a dinosaur bone that I ever had access to: the third caudal vertebra of MWC 8028, the ‘new’ Haplocanthosaurus specimen from Snowmass, Colorado (Foster and Wedel 2014, Wedel et al. 2021). I’ve been carrying this thing around since 2018. It’s been an aid to thought. I touched on this before, in this post, but real sauropod vertebrae are almost always a giant pain to work with, given their charming combination of great weight, fragility, and irreplaceability. As opposed to scaled 3D prints, which are light, tough, and endlessly replaceable.

This was brought home to me again a couple of weeks ago, when I visited the Carnegie Museum, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Research Casting International, in Trenton, Ontario, Canada. I was at each place to have another look at their haplocanthosaur specimens. The Carnegie is of course the home of CM 572, the type of H. priscus, and CM 879, the type of H. utterbacki (which has long been sunk into H. priscus, and rightly so — more on that another time, perhaps). RCI currently has CMNH 10380, the holotype of H. delfsi, for reprepping and remounting before it goes back to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

Caudals 1 through 6 of CM 572, the holotype of Haplocanthosaurus priscus.

The caudals of CM 572 and CM 879 aren’t that different in size — the centra max out at about 20cm (8in) in diameter, and the biggest, caudal 1 of CM 572, is 50cm (20in) tall. Still, given their weight and the number of thin projecting processes that could possibly break off, I handled them gingerly.

Caudals 1 through 5 of CM 10380, the holotype of Haplocanthosaurus delfsi.

The caudals of H. delfsi are a whole other kettle of fish. Caudal 1 has a max diameter of 36cm (14in) and a total height of 85cm (33.5in). I didn’t handle that one by myself unless I absolutely had to. Fortunately Garth Dallman of RCI helped a lot with the very literal heavy lifting, as did fellow researcher Brian Curtice, who was there at the same time I was.

Back to my beloved MWC 8028, the Snowmass haplocanthosaur. My colleagues and I are still working on it, and there will be more papers coming down the pike in due time (f’rinstance). I’m pretty sure that the main reason we’ve been able to get so much mileage out of this mostly incomplete and somewhat roadkilled specimen is that we’ve had 3D prints of key bones to play with. Now, I joke all the time about being a grownup who gets paid to play with dinosaur bones, but for once I’m not writing in jest when I say ‘play with’. That 3D printed caudal is basically a dinosaurian fidget toy for me, and I think it’s probably impossible to play with anatomical specimens without getting interested in their nooks and crannies and bits and bobs.

Another nice thing about it: I can throw it in my luggage, take it Oklahoma or Utah or Pennsylvania or Canada, and just plop it in someone’s hand and say, “Look at this weird thing. Have you ever seen that before?” I have done that, in all of those places, and it’s even more convenient and useful than showing CT slices on my laptop. I’ve watched my friends and colleagues run their fingers over the print, pinch its nearly non-existent centrum, poke at its weird neural canal, and really grokk its unusual morphology. And then we’ve had more productive conversations than we would have otherwise — they really Get It, because they’ve really handled it.

When I started writing this post, the title was a question, but that’s tentative to the point of being misleading. Three-D prints are obviously useful for sauropod workers because with very few exceptions our specimens are otherwise un-play-with-able. And playing with dinosaur bones turns out to be a pretty great way to make discoveries, and to share them.

(And yes, we’ll be publishing the CT scans and 3D models of MWC 8028 in due time, so you can play with it yourself.)


2 Responses to “3D printing is especially useful for sauropod workers”

  1. The first time I heard of 3D printing, it was way back in the 90s, and the device apparently made stacks of laminated paper cutouts instead of extruding thermoplastic. Anyways, the exciting use for it was to reify digital models of large molecules to let chemists and biomedical researchers better understand their topology. So it seems you are using the technology for something like its original intention.

  2. […] work because I recently had occasion to use them, studying the Haplocanthosaurus holotypes (see this post). For CM 572, the neural canal of the first caudal vertebra is full of matrix, so I used a variant […]

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