Nicholas Pyenson is the curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, whose studies are concentrated on marine fossils. He spends most of his labor time investigating fossils of ancient Cetaceans. In 2012 his Chilean colleague, Mario Suarez, invited Pyenson to take a look at the fossil found during the Pan-American Highway reconstruction. Though, Pyensom was able to visit Suarez by the chance during his stay in Chile, when Nicholas arrived there due to some other reasons. Observing the site he realized why Suarez was so excited about the discovery; it wasn’t just a skeleton of an ancient whale, it was a whole whale graveyard. The scientist could see skeletons of around 40 prehistoric whales, some of them reached 10 meters in length. The discovery is suggested to be the largest collection of whale remains.
In order to identify the reason behind the death of numerous whales, serious financial and time investments were required. Paleontological expedition has to investigate each specimen without removing it from the ground because discovered samples have to be correlated with their environment. Research would terminate expansion of the Pan-American Highway; as a consequence, city council of Caldera allowed scientists to carry investigations out only for one month. The challenge has forced Pyenson to find a revolutionary solution, which has influenced the future of paleontological studies. He went home, into Washington, and in two weeks he came back accompanied by the Adam Metallo and Vince Rossi, two young scientists of the Smithsonian Institution, who were working on the 3D digitalization technique. Instead of using traditional instruments they brought laser scanners and HD cameras.
“Laser Cowboys”, as Pyenson called them, settled a big tent at the site and worked 20 hours a day during the next 6 days, collecting the information and turning it into billions of pixels. All the elements of whale graveyard were shot using a regular Canon 5D camera, then they traced each skeleton with a laser.
When scientists returned to the institution, they proceeded to the restoration of the general picture based on the acquired data. First of all, they processed the HD-scans of the individual skeletons, afterwards combining them with photos, they have obtained 3D image of the whole investigation site. In some places the accuracy of the 3D model was less than 1 mm! As a result of a detailed analysis, scientists have also singled out remains of other large animals among whale bones. The team identified thalassocnus species, a swordfish, a penguin, an extinct sperm whale species, etc. A single specimen can tell anthropologists a lot about an animal and its habitat; therefore, the young anthropologist suggested that, in case of the whale graveyard, 3D visualization could promote the restoration of a whole ecosystem.
Another advantage of the method is the possibility to share data with other colleagues and scientists by printing high quality 3D copies of the fossils. This year Smithsonian Institution organized an exhibition in the National Museum of Natural History, where visitors could observe 10-meter skeleton of one of the whales found in Calder, Chile. Currently this is the largest object manufactured using a 3D printer.
Besides the paleontological importance, as the scientists believe, the exhibition might show people how successful development and application of digital technologies change life, not only in terms of scientific progress, but also in many sociological aspects. Possibility to store information safely, have always been vital for scientists, whether it’s drawings, sketches, data or photos. What is amazing about the 3D technologies is that is allows to preserve information for its further physical reproduction. The Smithsonian Institute has also organized a virtual library of 3D scans aimed at providing free online access to all the displays of the museum.
As Pyenson says: “One of the most important things about 3D digitalization, in the museum context, is its ability to make museum’s walls invisible”
By Yevgeniya Migranova