Using advanced computer technology and a laser scanner to document every dimple, bump and scratch, scientists at the Smithsonian Institution are building the most anatomically correct skeleton yet of a large dinosaur.
The scanner sent millions of signals to a computer, resulting in a series of measurements detailing the exact proportions "down to the millimeter" of the plant-eater triceratops, said Richard H. Benson, chairman of the National Museum of Natural History's paleobiology department.
From the final, three-dimensional image appearing on a screen, scientists built plaster casts. The resulting skeleton, Benson said, "will be more accurate and better" than the museum's current model, which was assembled from the bones of 15 or more different animals.
Triceratops' new 7-foot-long plastic skull was delivered to the Smithsonian Tuesday from two firms in Oklahoma, Shared Replicators and Tulsa Technologies, which built it as a gift to the museum.
Museum staff are making the legs and torso and hope to have the replica on display by February.
Benson called the man-made triceratops "a miracle of surveying." He compared the process of its creation to satellites circling and measuring the Earth to plot an exact map of the world.
While the Smithsonian's original four-legged triceratops is perhaps the best specimen around, its head came from an animal a lot smaller than the rest of the skeleton, said Ralph Chapman, director of the museum's morphometrics lab.
The new skull is about 15 percent larger than the one that has been on display for nearly a century.
"It fits rather nicely and looks the way it should," Chapman said.
More help came from a group of paleontologists who agreed on what a skeleton of a complete triceratops should look like. Some bones on one side of the dinosaur are mirror images of those on the other side, Chapman said, and the back feet were made from foot scans of a different triceratops altogether. The new technology also allows scientists to mold the skeletons into dramatic poses an impossibility with fragile fossils.
The Smithsonian already has one plastic dinosaur on display, the meat-eater tyrannosaurus rex. He's not as accurate as the new triceratops; his measurements were not digitalized but estimated "within the tolerance of scientific knowledge and artistic license," Benson said.
But T. rex's pose is so lifelike, you can almost see saliva dripping from his hungry jaws. Triceratops will be positioned directly across the exhibit gallery from T. rex and could be his lunch.
Triceratops' original bones will be placed in storage for study and protection from the wide swings in humidity that can hasten bone deterioration.
What's not going into hiding is the stereolithography technology used to create the man-made bone from computer data files. The museum plans a detailed interactive video of the processes used to make the new cast of the full-size triceratops.
Dinosaur casts, though, may be a minor use of the new technology. The Nike shoe company has used it to build golf shoes custom-built to Tiger Woods' feet. And other companies are now experimenting with virtual dressing rooms to create clothes perfectly fitted to a person's digitalized measurements.