3D printing helps Royal Tyrrell take dinosaur research to next level

Alberta's Royal Tyrrell Museum has found another innovative use for 3D printing technology: bringing fragile dinosaur specimens to life to advance knowledge and create compelling exhibits.

Amy Kowalchuk prepared a jaw bone replica for a new exhibit based on a fossil that is tens of millions of years old.

As a Royal Tyrrell Museum 3D technician, she says an abundance of caution is best when working with this material.

"Especially in paleontology, we're dealing with priceless specimens that are very, very delicate and you really don't want to be damaging them," Kowalchuk told CBC News.

Royal Tyrrell Museum

These days Kowalchuk spends a lot of her time behind a camera lens, building a digital blueprint of the museum's finds.

"You just have to take multiple photographs from multiple angles and then from that, you can triangulate them using computer programs, and then that gives you your 3D model," she said.

This technology is helping the museum show off some of its more impressive finds, such as a tyrannosaur specimen known as the exploded skull.

It has 41 pieces and is extremely delicate. But thanks to some 3D printed elements, it's now on display.

The technology is also adding a new dimension to curator François Therrien's research on dinosaur brains.

Colin Hall/CBC

He's using reconstructed brain cavities to get a better understanding of dinosaur behaviour, including how they hunted.

"Before, trying to reconstruct the brain structure or the brain shape of these extinct animals required a lot of work," Therrien explained.

"We needed to break the bones or have skulls that were already broken and then pour latex in there, try to peel it out and then a cast of the brain cavity. Now we can all do that with a CT scanner and 3D printing, so we can ask a lot of questions that previously would have been impossible to do."

Royal Tyrrell isn't alone. More and more museums are digitizing collections, which help dinosaurs come alive for both researchers and fans.

Colin Hall/CBC