VT paleontologists live many kids’ fantasy lives: hunting for dinosaur bones

Christopher Griffin excavates fossilized dinosaur bones in Zimbabwe. Many of the dinosaur fossils he has excavated can be seen in the Virginia Tech Geosciences Museum in Derring Hall. Photo courtesy of Christopher Griffin.

Virginia Tech paleontologists Sterling Nesbitt and Christopher Griffin live their childhood dreams. They travel to faraway lands hunting for dinosaur bones that no one else can find.

Nesbitt and Griffin, of the Department of Geosciences in VT’s College of Science, venture for adventure to places like Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Zambia, Madagascar and forests and fields around the world. There they dig through the grit and partner with remote museums to collect fossilized dinosaur bones.
In Zimbabwe, they recently discovered bones from an unnamed dinosaur. This new magnificent creature is a precursor of the long-necked dinosaurs, such as the small bipedal brachiosaurus.

But collecting the bones is just the beginning. They must then undergo a time-consuming cleaning process to prepare them for scanning.

“Most of the bones are partially covered with a thin layer of rock. We use an air-powered needle that hums as it vibrates back and forth under a microscope and delicately knocks off the prehistoric rock without damaging the bone,” Griffin said.

To make these invaluable finds digitally available for national and international scholars and citizens, Nesbitt and Griffin partner with University Libraries’ 3D Design Studio manager Max Ofsa to scan, digitize, print, and replicate these prehistoric bones using a modern form of paleontology.

This work is revolutionary in the study of dinosaurs. The digitization gives a record of the bones and archives and conserves their shapes and forms. It also provides an opportunity for others to study, 3D print, and build upon previous research to further illuminate the lives of these prehistoric creatures.

Traditionally, a researcher would need to physically go to a museum to see and study fossils. “Being able to broadly and quickly apply these resources, 3D scanning has great implications in how we share information. We are able to offer the nuance and detail of real-world objects in a digital realm,” said Ofsa.

Take Zimbabwe, for example. Zimbabwe is a difficult and expensive place to visit with an uncertain political climate, funding, and infrastructure. Because of this, their fossil bone collections are rarely examined or used. Now, thanks to Griffin’s and Nesbitt’s work and University Libraries’ 3D scanning expertise and technology, anyone can study Africa’s oldest known dinosaur excavated in Zimbabwe.

“Our philosophy is that all these bones don’t belong to anyone. This is all our equal history. Very few people ever get to see these bones in person,” said Nesbitt. “The University Libraries’ scanners are so good with extremely high resolution. This is the next best thing to holding the bone in your hand. This is as close as you can get to going to Zimbabwe yourself.”

“I can scan a bone, send it to researchers in places like South America or the Smithsonian,” said Griffin. “They can download it instantly, look at it in three dimensions, and confirm what a fossil is or is not.”

The two paleontologists focus on the very first dinosaurs and other large reptiles that walked the planet. Their research breaks new ground in discovering that all dinosaurs started off very small, not the size of a bus, as Hollywood movies portray.

Because Nesbitt and Griffin created global partnerships with remote museums, excavated sites across the world, and significantly built on previous paleontology research, Virginia Tech has a unique opportunity to share their knowledge with the world through technology.

“What we are scanning and printing, no one else has access to it. We have been involved in each step of the process,” said Griffin. “We scouted locations, traveled there, met with local museums and collaborators, hunted for bones, found the bones, dug them out of the ground, brought them back, cleaned them, scanned them, printed them, and published them. We are physically doing every part of the process.”

Ofsa said one of his favorite projects with the paleontologists was Nesbitt’s discovery of a Suskityrannus hazelae partial skull. “This is one of the smallest known relatives of the well-known, crowd-pleasing beast Tyrannosaurus rex, and we’ve scanned it.”


— Written by Elise Monsour Puckett