Thoracosaurus neocesariensis, a fossil crocodile that lived 65 million to 100 million years ago, when the oceans were higher, in the ancient warm, carbon-dioxide-rich mangrove swamps of present-day southern New Jersey.
Crocodiles have been chasing fish for a very, very long time–since the Late Cretaceous, in fact–says paleontologist Kenneth Lacovara of Philadelphia’s Drexel University. The pick-and-shovel scientist and his team unearthed a surprisingly complete fossilized skeleton of this aquatic tetrapod, a dinosaur the length of a small limo, in a manganese greensand pit in Mantua Township, New Jersey. The site has attracted amateur fossil hunters since the mid-19th century.
The creature’s remains comprise 30 vertebrae, 31 teeth, parts of the skull, jaw, and ribs and armor plate (scute) fossils that lined the creature’s back. “It’s the best exposure into the Cretaceous period east of the Mississippi,” Lacovera said.
Professor Lacovara travels the world from his academic home in Drexel’s Department of Biodiversity, Earth & Environmental Science to places as remote as the high plains of Patagonia to dig for fossils. Not content with remarkable dinosaur finds, however, he has set forth to make technically precise and lifelike moving replicas from creatures such as the sedimentary New Jersey crocodilian.
One of the tools Ken Lacovera uses is digital laser scanning, which has emerged at Drexel, the University of California at Berkeley, the Canadian Museum of Nature, and other institutions in the past few years as a credible way to recreate animals from fossilized remains. When passed over rocklike ancient bones, the laser digitally records millions of 360-degree data points onto a computer, which then creates a 3-D model of the fossil. Scientists can compensate for any missing limbs or physical damage to the skeleton by adjusting the digital hologram.
“Technology in paleontology hasn’t changed in about 150 years. We [still] use shovels and pickaxes and burlap and plaster. It hasn’t changed—until right now,” Dr. Lacovera says.
Several years ago, a Master’s art student, Evan Boucher, worked with Lacovera and other specialists to turn the digital renderings of the dino-croc’s musculature and fleshed-out appearance (see photo) into an extraordinarily lifelike animation of how the creature may have lived. Boucher’s five-minute video earned him a prestigious National Geographic Digital Modeling and Animation Award from the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology and paved the way for a job at DreamWorks. View it here.
The Philadelphia team’s digital feat is already valuable–not only for rendering precise animated holograms, or “paleoart,” but also for preserving dimensions of frail fossils and democratizing paleontology by enabling worldwide dissemination and scientific collaboration in real time about important finds. Lacovera is now melding the digital modeling technique to three-dimensional printing technology. With it, he can create accurate, tangible 1:1 and at-scale (down to 2-3%) plastic models of Earth’s long-gone inhabitants.
“I guess I’ve always had a penchant for adopting the latest technologies when they’re available,” the Drexel paleontologist told Francie Diep of InnovationNewsDaily.
At the forefront of what he calls “the brave new world of paleontology” of the past 5-10 years, Lacovera is working with colleague James Tangorra on the simulations in order to create manipulable dinosaur robots. Professor Tangorra’s specialties include engineering, system design, and analysis of animal physiology. Their simulacra will mimic the most efficient natural movements of prehistoric animals.
Drexel has invested in a state-of-the-art, world-class laboratory to allow its researchers to realize accurate virtual and physical models of ancient bones. Lacovera and Tangorra are devoted to bringing “once upon a time, very long ago” as close to reality as possible. One of their most ambitious projects: identifying the likely morphology and locomotion of a 75-foot sauropod (“brontosaurus”) with a ton-per-day diet. Another will roboticize a 3-D model of an ancient turtle.
Dr. Lacovera now scans every bone dug in his research to protect its integrity against breakage, loss, or unavoidable mutilation during mounting for display. Museums like the Smithsonian have also started digitizing their collections.
Meanwhile, the Inversand mining company, owner of the old home of Thoracosaurus neocesariensis, is working with Mantua Township officials and Drexel to create a fossil park at the site. The mining company had excavated sand from its 65-acre pit behind a local Lowes outlet until about ten years ago. At that time, demand for the minerals faltered and some very important fossils began to emerge. The park, which awaits township funding, will include a welcome center, an on-site lab, and an educational facility.
Scientists and educators today also contemplate educational applications of the technology. These include step-by-step exploration of evolutionary processes with fossil replicas. Scale models could enable every schoolchild in the world to contrast the coexistent lifestyles of Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal as if playing with dolls, and to touch the virtual skulls and brains of their prehistoric ancestors.