Jurassic dinosaur skull reconstructed with CT scans and 3D modeling

Researchers from South Africa are walking with
dinosaurs after recreating the facial skeleton of the
Massospondylus carinatus (M. carinatus) dinosaur with
CT scans and digital 3D modeling.

Kimberley E.J. Chapelle
and Jonah
N. Choiniere from the Evolutionary
Studies Institute
and School of Geosciences at South
Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand, have produced
a 3D representation of the M. carinatus’ skull and

This is to better understand the growth
patterns and appearance of the dinosaur by comparing the scan
data to other dinosaur models.

Massospondylus Carinatus on two feet. Photo via Wikimedia.Massospondylus Carinatus
on two feet. Image via Wikimedia.

3D modeling in reconstruction

The relationship between 3D technologies and
reconstruction is a strong one. 3D printing was used to
reconstruct some of the bones of the famous blue whale at the

Natural History Museum in London

Additionally, a combination of genome data and 3D
scanning/modeling technology was also used recently to
reconstruct the Cheddar Man
, the
oldest complete skeleton ever to be found in Britain.

The M. carinatus was a dinosaur from the Early
Jurassic Period (over 200 million years ago) that lived on the
land that now forms part of South Africa and Lesotho and was
either herbivorous or omnivorous.

Despite its abundance, not as much is known
about the appearance of the M. carinatus as is known about the
better-known Plateosaurus or the Diplodocus, both of which are
from the same sub-order.

According to the researchers, digital
reconstructions of the scans enable the shape of the floor of
the braincase to be explored in greater detail. Even
though it is tentatively known that the M. carinatus’ brain
case differs from other species, 3D models would make this more


A far cry from Jurassic Park, 3D modelling
the M. carinatus

To reconstruct the facial bones of the M.
carinatus, a CT scan of the skull was first taken using a Nikon
Metrology XTH 225/320 LC dual source industrial CT system.
While several fossilized skulls exist of the M. carinatus, the
specimen “BP/1/5241” was ultimately used because there was a
good contrast between rock and bone matrix, improving the scan

The specimen was scanned at approximately
107-micrometer resolution under a 100kV x-ray with an Amperage
of 680 microamps through a 1.8 mm thick copper filter.

The resulting scan image yielded data
dimensions of 1,000 x 1,000 x 1,000 with a voxel size of
0.1068mm, a resolution adequate for the researchers’

The scans of each cranial bone were then
individually digitally segmented using VG Studio Max v.2.1. The
resulting digital 3D models were then compared to
Plateosaurus erlenbergiensis, Lufengosaurus
, and Sarahsaurus aurifontanalis dinosaur
species as comparanda.

The researchers were able to ascertain certain
details about the dinosaur’s soft tissues, and they concluded
that it was, in fact, the angle of the sphenoid bone (behind
the eyes) that was a defining characteristic of the M.

3D reconstruction with colored bones for analysis. Image via Wits University.3D reconstruction with
colored bones for analysis. Image via Wits University.

The benefits of 3D modelling

Analysis was carried out on all the digital 3D
models of the constituent bones. 3D modelling made comparing
the the bones to other species and characterising their
physical features much more accessible and efficient.

Furthermore, digital DICOM data and STL files
of the 3D models were made freely available by the authors
through MorphoSource, a 3D platform hosted by Duke
that also hosts 3D scans of museum
3D scanned by the oVert project
This makes it possible to 3D print the dinosaur cranium.

The full paper, “A revised cranial description
of Massospondylus carinatus Owen (Dinosauria:
Sauropodomorpha) based on computed tomographic scans and a
review of cranial characters for basal Sauropodomorpha” by
Kimberley E.J. Chapelle
and Jonah N. Choiniere
is available to read online via PeerJ.

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