For as long as the science has been around, paleontology has required laborious and impossibly meticulous field work. Extracting fossils from the ground often means working, quite literally, one grain of sand at a time.

But that’s all changing thanks to new technology for virtually visualizing fossils, according to a research study out of University of Bristol in the U.K. X-ray scanning and the resulting digital avatars allow for virtual excavations that take a fraction of the time. As an added bonus, the new techniques largely eliminate the risk of damaging valuable fossils.

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It also makes for better science. Digital scanning can reveal details both externally and internally that can’t be detected otherwise. And because digital data can be shared, instantly and globally, teams of scientists can work in parallel, speeding up the pace of research.

The study also highlights a few troublesome issues, though. Data sharing is often impeded by a lack of dedicated technological infrastructure between collaborating institutions. And some museums actually copyright their fossils, complicating data sharing on legal grounds.

Still, the upside of fossil avatars is pretty convincing, and the technology is prompting fundamental changes in the science of paleontology.

“The increasing availability of fossil avatars will allow us to bring long-extinct animals back to life, virtually, by using computer models to work out how they moved and fed,” says study co-author Stephan Lautenschlager on the study’s project page.

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Paleobiologist Imran Rahman, also an author of the study, raises another tantalizing possibility — particularly for dinosaur-crazy kids: “Paleontologists are making their fossil avatars freely available as files for 3-D printing and so, soon, anyone who wants one can have a scientifically accurate model of their favorite fossil, for research, teaching, or just for fun!”

Well, so much for my treasured box of 1970s plastic dinosaur figures I’d been saving to give my fifth-grader. Thirty-five years I’ve been holding onto those. Not cool, University of Bristol. Not cool.


Credit: University of Bristol