For anyone who has a keen interest in dinosaurs and has a 3D printer to hand – admittedly, likely a small subset of people – January has provided an opportunity to recreate a little bit of the Early Jurassic period.
Kimberley E.J. Chappelle, a PhD student at the Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg has made it possible, using computed tomography (CT) methods, to print a little bit of palaeontology in your own home. Her paper: ‘A revised cranial description of Massospondylus carinatus Owen (Dinosauria: Sauropodomorpha) based on computed tomographic scans and a review of cranial characters for basal Sauropodomorpha’ not only goes into much greater detail on the cranial anatomy of the extinct species, but also makes the details needed to 3D print a model skull of your own freely available to all.
It’s not quite Jurassic Park, Massospondylus is going to stay very much extinct for the time being, but the findings from the study do allow researchers to understand more about these dinosaurs. Despite Massospondylus being one of the better represented species in the fossil record – including egg clutches, and the oldest fossilised embryos found to date – little is known about them.
What is known is that they lived in what is now South Africa, Lesotho, and Zimbabwe, in the early Jurassic period. They have been discovered frequently in the upper Elliot to lower Clarens Formations. It was not a behemoth of a dinosaur: measuring between 4-6m in length and being not much taller than a human, with a long neck and tail, and a small head in relation to body size. It is likely that it was herbivorous, however there are currently arguments that the species may have been an omnivore.
CT scans of Massospondylus allow researchers to understand a lot more about this species, including the anatomy of the internal cranium, which had not yet been described despite the relative abundance of fossil specimens available. Understanding the internal structure of the skull can increase understanding of the growth patterns of the species – the specimen used was found to be not fully grown, as the bones of the brain case had not yet fused. Equally, looking at the arrangement and relationship between the bones of the inner ear allow for a further understanding of how the dinosaur may have moved, current theories postulate it was probably bipedal. Further CT scans will likely be carried out in the future on other specimens to help answer these questions.
We are certainly a long way from walking with dinosaurs, but with research techniques like this, it is much easier to model what they would have been like, and let our imaginations do the rest.