A company east of Drumheller is using 3D technology to turn fossils that have been compressed over millions of years into life-like skeletons and is changing the way Paleontologists work.

Palcoprep Inc. is the first to use a three dimensional scanning technique on a massive scale and has created a 13 foot long skull of an Ichthyosaur.

An Ichthyosaur, which means fish lizard, is a marine reptile that dates back to the Triassic period and in life, would have been about 70 feet long.

The fossil was discovered in north central B.C. and is the largest marine reptile discovered to date.

Frank Hadfield is the president of Palcoprep and he and his team have spent the last six months making a replica of the fossil’s skull for the Natural History Museum in Japan.

The fossil was badly compressed so they had to come up with a way to re-inflate it.

“We thought, hmm, the possibility is there that we could scan this, re-inflate it and then carve the actual specimen the way it was in life after taking the distortion and compression out of it,” said Hadfield. “No one had ever done it on this scale before so we hummed and hawed about it for about a year and a half before we made the proposal to the Royal Tyrrell Museum, who was good enough to let us use their specimen and so we thought what the heck let’s try it.”

A hand held scanner maps the fossil and then the distortion is removed using a computer. A 3D scale model is printed and then a router is used to carve the shape.

The skull was carved in pieces to preserve the detail and then assembled onto a support system.

“As we were carving this with the router we were working out how we would build the armature that’s going to fit in there and fit in with how it’s going to hang in the museum  and the pose and things like that,” said Hadfield.

The technology allows them to create a realistic display that does not impact the integrity of the specimen.

“If you took a specimen like this that is 13 feet long and eight feet wide and five feet high made of rock, imagine how heavy that would be and these are one-of-a-kind specimens, so they don’t want to risk damage to it or anything like that and the difficulty of making a support structure and then it’s not readily available for study either. So now with this scanning technology it’s amazing what we can do and not even touch the specimen. We replicated this whole thing and never really had to touch the actual specimen at all,” said Hadfield. “If we do our job right, they think they’re looking at the original specimen. We try and fool them from five feet. If you look close enough and you have enough of a background in it then you’ll be able to tell when you look closely that it’s a replica.”

The Director of Preservation and Research at the Royal Tyrrell Museum is excited about the technology.

“Very rarely do you get a specimen that you look at and can see, oh it's been twisted here or crushed here, or that sort of thing, so this approach gives us a way of accurately interpreting what it was like when it was alive,” said Don Brinkman.

“This will open the door for so many other specimens that have been distorted and crushed so badly there was no hope of ever reconstructing them and how they would have looked in a life-like pose. This changes everything now and it does virtually no harm at all to the specimen,” said Hadfield.

The Natural History Museum in Japan will be displaying the skull, which will be sent out in the next few days. The team will them see if the museum is interested in fabricating the rest of the specimen and have built the skull so it can be added onto.

Now that they have worked out the bugs in the technology, they have put forth a proposal to do a similar project on a pre-historic sperm whale in South America.

“This is amazing, we can go anywhere in the world with our scanning device, that fits in carry-on, literally, and scan anything in the world,” said Hadfield.

“A very powerful tool that’s going to be used a lot in the future I’m sure,” said Brinkman.

For more information on the specimen fabrication visit the Palcoprep website HERE.