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Digging dinosaurs digitally

I can see so many young scientists getting very excited about this.

I can picture a new type of digital eureka as archeologists on their digs check their cell phones to identify or verify a newly discovered artifact.

The University of Michigan’s Online Showcase of 3-D Fossil Remains is a collection 20 years in the making. Its curators, led by paleontologist Daniel Fisher, unveiled this rich resource just this week.

Fisher’s dream of sharing the 3-D images of the Museum of Paleontology’s vast collection with researchers and the general public was delayed as he waited for the technology to be ready, and as he and his team laboriously scanned prehistoric bones.

A Michigan News post described the value of the resulting new resource to students and scientists:

On this website we’ll be providing 3-D models that allow you to manipulate these objects onscreen and to do very much what we would do if we had the real specimen in our own hands—zoom in on it, rotate it this way and that, and even make measurements of it,” Fisher said.

The new U-M website is not the first online paleontology collection, but it has features unmatched by any previous effort. The resolution of the images is higher, and viewers have the ability to use a “BonePicker” tool to pull individual bones from a skeleton and examine photorealistic 3-D versions of those bones up close.

The just-launched website includes a mastodon skeleton assembled from 245 bones painstakingly scanned into the computer by Fisher and his students. To help them properly align all the pieces, the researchers—with help from Brandon Walker of Midwestern Consulting—digitally scanned the mounted Buesching mastodon skeleton on display at the U-M Museum of Natural History, then used it as a guide.

Visitors to the website can double-click on any bone in the mastodon skeleton to get a separate close-up image that can be rotated, zoomed, panned and even measured.

The scientists and staff of the Museum plan to grow the Online Showcase significantly.  Look forward to the continual addition of thousands of specimens to manipulate, zoom in on, rotate, measure, explore.

Note: Committed to support, enhance, and collaborate in the research and instructional activities of the faculty, students, and staff, and contribute to the common good by collecting, organizing, preserving, and sharing the Paleontological record, the work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

U-M Online Repository of Fossils

Thanks to for this lead.  Gary also recommends visiting the new Petrie Museum at University College London’s Interactive Online 3D Object Library of Ancient Egyptian Artifacts.

Joyce Valenza About Joyce Valenza

Joyce is an Assistant Professor of Teaching at Rutgers University School of Information and Communication, a technology writer, speaker, blogger and learner. Follow her on Twitter: @joycevalenza


  1. Very cool online dinosaur activity. Thanks for sharing.

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