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Digital technology reconstitutes prehistoric life

The study of fossils now has new possibilities with computer graphics and collaboration between paleontologists and artists
Digital technology reconstitutes prehistoric life

Image acquisition and computer graphics are techniques that are being used in the diffusion of scientific research. Picture by: Ramon Moser/ UFRGS

Author: Camila Raposo

Approximately two years ago, fans from around the world packed the cinema theaters to watch Jurassic World. The fourth movie lived up to the franchise’s name and previous movies, becoming the most profitable movie released by then, having made US$ 524 million in the opening weekend. This record was broken six months later by Star Wars: The Force Awakens. According to the Internet Movie Database (IMDB), Jurassic World is the fourth biggest box office opening, standing behind Avatar and Titanic.

The first movie, released in 1993, made over US$ 900 million, which made it the biggest box office opening at that time.  Having won more than 20 awards, including three Oscars, the movie dazzled viewers with the possibility of walking along triceratops, velociraptors, and the terrifying tyrannosaurus, of course, which shaped a whole generation of people’s imagination. However, it was not only the entertainment industry and pop culture that were strongly affected by the movie, it is also a landmark for Paleontology.

Digital reconstruction of dinosaurs through computer graphics raised many questions concerning the animals' physical structure. The main one is the Tyrannosaurus rex’s locomotion.  Although the question was strongly discussed by scientists, the tyrannosaurus used to be depicted with an almost erect posture, having the spine in a 45° angle and the tail swiping the floor.

Such image changed when computer graphics engineers and technicians – that were responsible for modeling and creating the dinosaurs – showed, using biomechanical models, that that position was unfeasible and that the T-Rex could only be able to walk with its spine parallel to the floor. Even the American Natural History Museum decided to close one of the biggest exhibitions in order to reassemble a complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton in a position resembling the one shown in the movie.

Since then, computer graphics have been increasingly more present in Paleontology with a new form of approaching fossils and bringing significant contributions to prehistoric life studies. At UFRGS, this is not different. Digital models have been used for years for the diffusion of scientific research at the Departments of Paleontology and Stratigraphy of the Geosciences Institute, approaching paleontologists and computer graphic artists.

Digital reconstitution opens a whole new range of possibilities to Paleontology. Digitizing bones, for instance, enables the researchers to assemble whole skeletons of animals long ago extinct or even add missing pieces, fix small flaws for then analyze and measure some of the animal’s characteristics, such as the way it walked or ran, bite strength, weight, and body mass. The digital models also help scientists from different institutions to share information, and to replicate the models. Replacing the regular silicon models with computer graphics and 3D printing allows researchers to make perfect copies in any scale without damaging the fossils – which happens frequently with the traditional methods.

The techniques used to obtain digital models go from photographs processed in graphic software to image acquisition based on computerized tomography and three dimensional laser scanning, which is,  according to Professor Cesar Schultz from the Geosciences Institute, the most significant technological revolution implemented in Paleontology.

Extensively used in Medical studies, tomography brings new possibilities to Paleontology, starting with the access to the fossils’  inner part. It is also possible to see a embryo that had never hatched, or the inside of a cranial cavity to study brain size and shape, nerves and blood vessels  routes, as well as the dental anatomy of teeth still inside the mandible.

Laser scanning presents some disadvantages when compared to tomography: it is a slower process that allows only external morphological reconstitution of materials, yet it is more accessible. Three dimensional scanners are smaller, cheaper and easier to operate. A laser beam scans the material’s surface, which helps creating a high definition three dimensional image of any object. The laser also allows the researchers to obtain details of external surface of an egg shell, a worn-down tooth, or the impression of a pattern left on a rock by the skin of an animal, for instance.

Combining image acquisition modern techniques with computer graphics, artists are able to bring long extinct animals to life, as they can give muscles,  skin, textures, colors and natural movement to virtual skeletons, as it has been done in O Rio Grande do Sul no tempo dos Dinossauros project. Conducted in association with UFRGS Institute of Arts,  the project started in 2003 and it aims to reveal the tetrapod fossils found in the region by reconstituting animals and their natural habitats through digital images.  Artists and graphics specialists used graphics and animation software to develop three dimensional models highly faithful to the original images. “It was interesting that the artists questioned what we had not thought about -what was the color of the dinosaurs’ eyes? What was the shape of their pupils?”, says Schultz.

If you are asking yourself the same questions, here are the answers: according to Schultz,  the artists were free to choose between blue, brown, green and black because “there is not much variation of eye color in nature; the majority of animals’ eyes tend to be one of these colors”; concerning skin,  “we were used to use the same colors: brown, green…but dinosaurs are becoming more and more colorful. Nowadays, we know that dinosaurs are very similar to birds, and because of that we adopt the same color parameter of birds to dinosaurs: those who lived in forests were more colorful, while those from plains presented more neutral colors”. When it comes to pupils, it is harder to answer  - “there might be some logic behind it, but we cannot know it for sure. We asked the artists to make the pupils as they wished”, Schultz explains.

Many theses, dissertations, and scientific articles were produced in the University using the fossil digitizing technique, such as Alexandre Limparini’s thesis, in which he studied raiusuchidae’s mastication and possible bone movement in its skull. This was done through computerized tomography and specific 3D animation modeling software. Other examples of studies conducted in the institution are the doctoral dissertations written by Téo Veiga de Oliveira and by Pablo Gusmão Rodrigues.  Oliveira studied the cynodont’s posture and locomotion, while Rodrigues studied the mammals evolution, based on digital reconstitution of a cynodot’s inner ear and encephalon.

Possibilities and challenges

Schultz has plans for the digitized fossils, including producing a documentary similar to BBC’s Walking with Dinosaurs and creating a online catalog for public access containing the main fossils from the archives of the Departments of Paleontology and Stratigraphy – as it has been done by the Museum of London and the University of Bristol. The catalog would facilitate knowledge exchange, allowing people from anywhere in the globe to access our material. Andressa Paim, a Masters student, explains “if someone was interested in studying a certain piece, for instance, they would be able to see it in the catalog before deciding if it was worthy to come and see the piece in person”.

The project, however, has many obstacles to be overcome due to funding shortage. Professor Schultz has sent a project to CNPQ requesting funds, but the project was not accepted. UFRGS laboratory does not have equipment, such as tomography machines, scanners or 3D printers, since they are too expensive. Some of this equipment is used in the Engineering Department; the solution found for tomography was a collaboration with a private clinic. Purchasing the 3D Som software, which would be used for the catalog, is another obstacle. The software is expensive -  around R$ 15 thousand for the academic license -  and the research group was not able to raise the money to buy it.  “We do not know how we could make the images available on a website or what server and resources we should use”, Schultz explains, “Truth is that we have interrupted these projects for now”.  Currently, the images are mainly obtained by digital photographs, which are added to an interimage library.

Theses and dissertations:

Title: Estudo da biomecânica craniana de um Rauissuquídeo a partir de tomografias computadorizadas e técnicas de imagens digitais em 3 dimensões

Author: Alexandre Liparini

Advisor: Cesar Leandro Schultz

Department: Geosciences Post Graduation Program.


Title: Postura e locomoção em cinodontes do triássico Sul-Americano: um estudo de caso baseado em Trucidocynodon Riograndensis Oliveira, Soares & Schultz, 2010 (Triássico Superior, Formação Santa Maria, Bacia do Paraná; Rio Grande do Sul, Brasil)
Author: Téo Veiga de Oliveira

Advisor: Cesar Leandro Schultz

Department: Geosciences Post Graduation Program.


Title: Reconstituições digitais do encéfalo e da orelha interna de Brasilitherium riograndensis Bonaparte et al., 2003, e considerações sobre a evolução neurológica e sensorial na transição entre cinodontes não mamalianos e mamíferos

Author: Pablo Gusmão Rodrigues

Advisor: Cesar Leandro Schultz

Department: Geosciences Post Graduation Program

Original text in Portuguese available at:

Translated by Ana Nachtigall under the supervision of Professor Márcia Moura da Silva (UFRGS)

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