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The 5-Million-Year-Old 3D Printout

Got a rare fossil? Find a Makerbot. 
The 3D print and the fossil, together (University of Oregon)

The University of Oregon has a remarkable specimen in its paleontology department: a rare fossil of a fish. In this case, Onchorynchus rasters, the distant ancestor of the salmon you might enjoy draped on sushi rice or served over wilted spinach. The fossil is five million years old. It is seven feet long. It is saber-toothed. And while these features must have made the proto-salmon quite terrifying in life, in death its remains are incredibly fragile. So much so that it's hard for researchers to examine the specimen without damaging it. As for anyone else interacting with it? Out of the question. pEnter 3D printing. Earlier this month, the library took its specimen and converted it into an object that would be suitable both for research and for public viewing. To do this, it took advantage of a CAT scan that Edward Davis, the UO paleontologist who has worked with the fossil, had already made to preserve the fossil's measurements without excess handling. The University of Oregon's science librarian, Walton Walton, and his staff turned that scan into a 3D model. And then they turned to the library's 3D printer (in this case, a MakerBot Replicator II). They made three pieces, of the animal's braincase and its jaw, coded in blues and greens.

And while the resulting print-out won't obviate the need for more hands-on research—you can only get chemical info, for example, from the fossil itself—it does give researchers more freedom to touch and see and otherwise understand this five-million-year-old fish. It gives librarians more freedom to share rare objects with the public—the way the Smithsonian, say, is experimenting with 3D-printed artifactsIt also gives them the freedom to make their own copies. As Walton told Library Journal, “[paleontologists] can take the model, make a cast, and have a legitimate, accurate copy without ever having touched the real fossil.”

Hat tip Chris Heller

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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