Titanosaur: The technology behind paleontology

BBC documentary follows the reconstruction of the biggest dinosaur ever discovered, but paleontology has come on in leaps and bounds

On Sunday night, the BBC broadcast a documentary exploring the discovery and reconstruction of the biggest dinosaur known to have walked the Earth. The teaser revealed in advance that the documentary would look at “what the bones reveal about the lives of these dinosaurs with the help of 3D scanning, CGI visuals and animation,” which is a rather nice reminder of exactly how far we’ve come in the world of paleontology.

Let’s start with the word. “Paleontology” was coined all the way back in 1822 by a French scientific journal, but the study of non-dinosaur fossils goes back much, much further than that. Xenophanes, Herodotus and Eratosthenes all wrote about fossils in the years BC, but it wasn’t until 1677 that the first dinosaur bone was given proper, formal scholarly attention, when Robert Plot from the University of Oxford correctly identified the bone as a femur, but incorrectly concluded it was the bone of a Biblical giant. Swing and a miss.

Fast-forward 147 years and the first dinosaur bone is officially identified by another Oxford professor – Reverend William Buckland – who identified the fossilised bones of the brilliantly named Megalosaurus in a scientific journal. Then, in 1822, the less excitingly named Iguanodon was named by Mary Ann Mantell. In America, where the first fossil was found in 1858, the race to find species was dominated by two names: Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh, who found 142 new species between them (86-56 for those keeping score… which Marsh probably was, given his massive lead.)

As science and technology have advanced, so has paleontologists’ ability to get more from the old fossils. In 2005, a team led by Mary Higby Schweitzer found soft tissue inside a T-Rex leg bone, which when treated revealed evidence of connective tissue and blood vessels. There may be even more of these clues in the bone than we previously thought possible – just last year, blood samples were found in “crap specimens”.

That brings us to the very cutting-edge stuff the BBC mentioned. Fossils that are found now not only give us more information than they ever could have dreamed of in the formative days of paleontology, but technology also allows us to get it into more hands than ever before. The Smithsonian has 3D-scanned the bones of dinosaurs, giving anyone with a 3D-printer the opportunity to download and replicate bones for their own examination, without having to worry about the samples deteriorating with so many people wanting a look.

3D-printing also allows paleontologists to fill in gaps where bones are missing. The skeleton of Ugrunaaluk Kuukpikensis – a dinosaur believed to have been adapted for arctic environments – was only completed by 3D printing mirror images of missing bones to complete the structure. “We are able to reconstruct a new species of dinosaur for the exhibit in pretty much record time,” explained Dr. Pat Druckenmiller.

That’s just scraping the surface. As Smithsonian Magazine explains, once “precise models are created, the fossils can be tested in new ways, such as subjecting them to biomechanical analysis, the same way structural engineers test bridges and buildings before they’re built. This can tell scientists how a given animal could have walked, what it ate, how fast it could move, and what kinds of movements it couldn't make because of limitations of its bone and muscle.”

Add to this electron microscopy, synchrotron tomography and X-ray imaging, and you’ve got a surprisingly detailed picture of how the dinosaurs functioned on a macro and micro level when they walked the Earth.

I've yet to watch it yet, but it sounds like the BBC documentary covered the use of many of these cutting-edge technologies and more. Although I imagine the CGI graphics were more for our entertainment than scientific analysis, you can’t argue that we’ve come a long way from Robert Plot’s “human giant” misdiagnosis.

Attenborough and the Giant Dinosaur will be available on iPlayer until 23 February.

READ NEXT: How iPads are changing the way we visit museums

Images: James Emery and Ignacio Garcia used under Creative Commons

Read more about: