The Smithsonian’s 3D Printed Fossil Whales

The Smithsonian’s 3D Printed Fossil Whales

fossil, smithsonian, chile, highway, whale, 3d scanProgress vs. Preservation, it’s a constant struggle for every nation.  In October of 2011, Smithsonian Paleontologist Nick Pyenson met this reality head on.

In the final days of his expedition to Chile, Nick and his team decided to take a trek to site where the Pan –American Highway was being widened. Upon their arrival, Nick discovered numerous whale fossils littering the area. Included among these were the fossils of three baleen whales, two adults and a calf.

Without anytime left on his current expedition, Pyenson knew that he had to return to Chile. Before his departure he was warned by his Chilean counterparts that the site he had stumbled upon would soon be paved over, and the bones were already been slated for removal.

According to Nick, fossilized bones tell the story of how and why an animal was constructed, but the location of the fossil provides just as much information. “Animals die and are deposited in an environment of one kind or another… Knowing how they came to rest, the sediment they are buried in, whether they were scavenged, whether sharks bit them and what other bones are found nearby” are vital to understanding a creature’s story.

When he arrived in Washington, Pysenson was determined to preserve the site he had just visited.  With little time remaining, he assembled a Smithsonian team of 3D scanning specialists, and three weeks later, he was back in Chile.

Over the course of the next few days, Vince Rossi, Adam Metallo, and Pyenson scanned the site’s fossils, creating 3D models with astonishing detail.

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Scale models of the whale fossils have since been printed from the team’s scans,  and those models can be used by paleontologists the around world for further research.

While the whale fossils have since been removed from the site, 3D scanning and printing technology have preserved the data embedded in their bones and final resting place, providing an equal footing for both progress and preservation.

Images and Video Courtesy of The Smithsonian and the Pyenson Lab