By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
PITTSBURG, Kan. —
Jason Ward never thought he would have a 150 million-year-old fossilized allosaurus arm bone on his desk. Or a vertebra from a plesiosaur.
But his small, unassuming, second-floor office at Pittsburg State University has been turned into a paleontology lab of the most futuristic kind.
The assistant professor in graphics and imaging technology has been working with a Carl Junction, Mo., fossil collector on a project that uses seemingly space-age technology to capture, manipulate, archive and share — even reverse engineer — objects that have been around since the Mesozoic Era.
And they’re gaining the attention of scientists nationwide.
“Bones may never have to leave a museum again,” said Sean McCartney, Ward’s student. “What we’re doing has so many different kinds of applications, it will totally crack open paleontology.”
McCartney, 50, has been a fossil hunter for 30 years and amassed quite a collection at his Carl Junction home. From the 1970s through the 1990s, he worked with the likes of noted paleontologists Robert Bakker and Jack Horner.
A native of Wichita, McCartney holds a degree in archaeology from Wichita State University, and he studied geology and paleontology at the Colorado School of the Mines and the University of Colorado at Boulder. At those institutions, he was a member of field teams recording Indian petroglyphs, mapping abandoned 19th century mine shafts and excavating Jurassic dinosaurs in Colorado’s Morrison Formation.
He was the founder and vice president of the Wichita Paleontological Society, and he was instrumental in establishing joint field excavation programs between the society and both the Sternberg Museum in Hays and the Dallas Paleontological Society.
Life changed, however, and he most recently worked as a general contractor in Florida.
In 2007, he returned to the area to live in Carl Junction. He enrolled at PSU in 2010 to earn a federal certification in a type of 3-D technology known as building information modeling that is now required in his line of work.
Meanwhile, Ward, who has an expert ability to see the world three dimensionally on an x, y and z axis, had been looking for something solid to scan with his department’s 3-D scanner.
Glass bottles were impossible because of the transparency and glare. Plastic toys were OK. But what Ward really wanted were interesting rocks.
“Sean said, ‘How about fossils?’” Ward recalled. “I said, ‘Bring ’em in.’”
A vertebra from a plesiosaur — a marine reptile dating from the early Jurassic period that was common in once ocean-covered Kansas — was their first experiment.
“It was probably one of the easiest things to scan in four years of trying,” Ward said.
And now, with the plastics engineering department’s 3-D printer, Ward said whatever they scan can be replicated in exact detail.
That includes the shelves of McCartney’s prehistoric wonders that now line one of Ward’s office walls: ancient shark teeth, small skulls and fossilized bones from around the world. And the allosaurus arm that McCartney brought back as part of a U-Haul load from a dig in Wyoming.
The applications are mind-blowing, the duo said.
Researchers living hundreds of miles apart can collaborate on a project digitally.
Bones that are extremely fragile or very rare need never leave a secure storage area. Bones that are damaged can be repaired virtually and then can be printed three dimensionally as newer, improved versions.
High school and college students can have access to an archive and samples never before available to them.
Rare fossils could be re-created for display and the real ones locked away — an attractive prospect to insurance companies, McCartney noted.
Or, a museum that is missing a bone in an otherwise fully complete skeleton can create a reproduction based on the scan of a bone housed at another museum.
“And it can be done in hours rather than the thousands of hours that an artist would spend,” Ward said.
In fact, McCartney added, a 3-D printer could produce nine reproduction fossils at a time in less than a day and mail them to museums the next day.
The two demonstrated their success at the annual meeting of the Kansas Academy of Science in April, and they had tremendous feedback. Because PSU is one of the few institutions to currently use 3-D scanning for this purpose, other universities — including the University of Kansas, which has an extensive fossil collection — the National Park Service and several museums are working with Ward to create digital scans of some of their fossils and artifacts.
“WSU (Wichita State University) is interested in reproducing a real Columbian mammoth skeleton with hollow plastic casts to lighten its weight, which would allow for it to be mounted on a wall,” McCartney said. “And some collectors in Florida want to bring up their triceratops skeleton this summer to work on. It started a ball we can’t stop rolling.”
Ward said the technology is applicable across just about any discipline.
“We’re getting a lot of attention from other places that want us to help them create digital archives of their objects,” he said. “It’s going to be interesting to see just how far this little project can go.”
SEAN McCARTNEY will graduate Saturday and has a computer modeling job lined up in Wichita that starts May 20. But he said he’ll stay in touch with Jason Ward and the fossil scanning project. “The possibilities are endless,” he said.