Virtual Fossils

Virtual Fossils are replicas of original fossils. They can be bigger or smaller in size and can be touched for closer observation. Image Credit: Museum Girl Sarah, via cc

Virtual Fossils are replicas of original fossils. They can be bigger or smaller in size and can be touched for closer observation. Image Credit: Museum Girl Sarah, via cc

You must have heard or read about fossils. Fossils are the remains of dead animals and plants that have remained preserved for millions of years. You may have even seen a fossil or two in museums. Do you know about that Woolly Mammoth that was found buried under layers of ice? The fossil was found with its fur and tusks intact. Have you ever wished you could see that Mammoth fossil yourself? Or even that you could yourself discover a fossil like that – a complete one?

Would you like to engage in some fossil spotting fun? Click here to look for a fossil hidden in a large rocky area.

Discovering fossils is not an easy task. Finding a complete fossil is extremely rare. Often the fossils that are dug up from inside the Earth, are flattened out. Getting complete knowledge from them is difficult. For example, a fossil paw print gives no clue about the animal’s height. The fossil of that Woolly Mammoth was a lucky find. At other times, scientists need to put together a collection of bones like a jig-saw puzzle. You may have seen the bones of a dinosaur displayed at museums. That framework took hours of hard work to make. But, most often, what is found is just a 2-D imprint on a some rock surface. It looks like a framed picture. Due to this limitation, the study of fossils remains confined. What if, we could use technology to generate 3-D models?

(L) - A fossil print on a rock is just an impression, Image Credit: Flickr user MGSpiller, via cc, (R) - A full skeleton of an adult Stegosaurus displayed at Americam Museum of National History. Not many fossil bones are found intact so scientists have to recreate the missing bones to complete the whole frame, Image Credit: Flickr User InSapphoWeTrust, via cc

(L) – A fossil print on a rock is just an impression, Image Credit: Flickr user MGSpiller, via cc, (R) – A full skeleton of an adult Stegosaurus displayed at Americam Museum of National History. Not many fossil bones are found intact so scientists have to recreate the missing bones to complete the whole frame, Image Credit: Flickr User InSapphoWeTrust, via cc

Digital fossils and 3-D printing

3-D models of fossils can be created using Software. Such models are called Virtual Fossils. CT scan is a technology used in hospitals. It works much like an X-ray. CT scans takes pictures of the fossil from all possible angles. CT scan is useful as it helps in identifying the fossil from the rock it is embedded within. The pictures produced by the scans are then combined to create a 3-D digital model. Once the digital model is ready, it can be printed using 3-D printers. 3-D printers print on hard surfaces like metal, instead of paper. The result is an actual copy of the fossil that you can hold, pick up and move around.

3-D models in museums

3-D models of tiny fossils can be printed in bigger sizes. Museums then display these larger sized models along with the small original fossil. This is like gazing at the fossil through a looking glass. The large size of the model makes the display more interesting. Also, as compared to the real thing, we are allowed to touch these models. Such an arrangement is especially useful for blind people who need to feel things to learn about them.

When you walk into a museum, you can at best see the original fossils from a distance. Often you can only view them from one angle – the front. But with virtual fossils on a computer screen, you can see them from whichever angle you wish to. Just click and drag the image and you can flip the fossil over. Hence, such models come in handy to the students. Museums hope to pull in more visitors by putting up the eye-catching 3-D printed models on display. You can even find virtual fossils on some museum websites. Hopefully, virtual fossils will add more value to the study of fossils.

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