dinosaur 3d skull
PhD student Kimberley Chapelle at work in the field.(Wits University) Wits University

A researcher was able to reconstruct a 200-year-old dinosaur skull using the Wits MicroFocus CT facility to peer inside and made it a 3D downloadable file for anyone to open and see.

The digital reconstruction of the South African dinosaur, Massospondylus, has made it possible for researchers to make 3D prints and facilitate future research on other dinosaurs anywhere in the world.

Kimi Chapelle, a PhD student at the Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa (Wits), whose paper has been published in the open-access journal, PeerJ, used the CT facility to rebuild every bone of Massospondylus's cranium, including tiny nerves exiting the brain and the balance organs of the inner ear.

Making it available for download online means "any researcher or member of the public can print their own Massospondylus skull at home," says Chapelle.

Massospondylus, named in 1854 by the celebrated anatomist Sir Richard Owen, was found in 1976 in the form of fossil eggs and embryos in Golden Gate National Park in South Africa by James Kitching. But the skull of Massospondylus has been the focus of an in-depth anatomical investigation only now.

"I started digitally reconstructing the skull of Massospondylus and found all these features that had never been described," said Chapelle.

She was able to find tiny details on how the inner ear and the middle ear contacted each other, where the nerves connecting different parts of the skull to the brain were and which bones they went through. The replacement teeth don't erupt in a specific pattern and are present on all teeth, and that the bones that surround the brain in this specific fossil were not fully fused, she noticed in her reconstruction of the dinosaur's skull.

"By comparing the inner ear to that of other dinosaurs, we can try and interpret things like how they held their heads and how they moved. You can actually see tiny replacement teeth in the bones of the jaws, showing us that Massospondylus continuously replaced its teeth, like crocodiles do," says Chapelle.

Since the bones of the braincase aren't fully fused means that the fossil belongs to an individual that is not fully grown, she says trying to further elaborate on "how Massospondylus grew, how fast it grew and how big it could grow."

Chapelle is excited to study how Massospondylus babies weighing less than 100g grow up to be half-tonne adults? "I'll be using scans of other specimens to answer new questions," says the PhD scholar. Her supervisor and co-author of the study Prof. Jonah Choiniere, adds, "It's changing the way we do dinosaur research."

Massospondylus fossil findings have been aplenty in South Africa, ranging in size from hatchlings to adult.