Design Students Help Recreate Ancient Crocodile

Stephanie Huang, junior studying art and design with a new media and animation concentration, using a hand-held laser scanner to scan the skull of an Allosaurus(italics) as part of her internship at the NC Museum of Natural Science. Scanning this skull was practice for scanning the smaller and much more fragile fossils of the new crocodile specimen. "It was a good learning experience," Huang said. photo courtesy of Stephanie Huang.

Design students from NC State helped create a 3D model of the skull of a newly discovered species of crocodile recently uncovered in Durham. The students worked with the NC Museum of Natural Science and a team of researchers including Lindsay Zanno, an assistant research professor in the NC State department of biology and the director of the Paleontology & Geology Research Laboratory at the NC Museum of Natural Science.

The specimen is one of the oldest known species of crocodile and is from the Triassic period, making it about 231 million years old, according to Zanno.

When the discovery was made, Zanno sent out an email to students in the College of Design asking for any students interested in reconstructing the skull for credit or just for fun.

Three students responded to the email: Stephanie Huang, now a junior studying art and design with a concentration in new media and animation, and Joe Savage and Mary Katherine Snow, who at the time were both seniors in industrial design but have since graduated.

“We had skull bones from a new species of crocodile, and we wanted to model the whole skull,” Zanno said. “So we had students scan in the pieces of skull that we did have and then scan in skulls of some of its close relatives. We then took pieces of these completed skulls to fill in and create a 3D model which included all the missing elements.”

Huang was able to do contract work for Zanno over the summer during which she modeled the skull of the still unnamed crocodile species. Prior to taking on this internship, Huang had taken a digital modeling course; however, she said that this internship was much more hands-on.

“[The staff researchers] were able to tell me, ‘oh this bone should go here or there,’ but the end product was a lot of my vision too,” Huang said. “It was fun to do and also a really good learning process.”

Even with the skull pieces that had been provided by the museum and the fossils from relatives of the new specimen, additional elements had to be created from scratch.

“She was able to model this and figure out how the skull would look, which was really cool for us because we weren’t really sure what the shape of the skull was actually like until she started doing this work.” Zanno said.

Huang, Snow and Savage used a 3D surface scanner at the Museum of Natural Science to scan the existing crocodile fossils into the computer. This was done by placing motion dots on the bones, similar to those that actors use for CGI effects in sci-fi movies. A handheld laser scanner was used to slowly move around the fossil until there was a cloud of data points that the computer could use to assemble the polygons that make up the final model.

According to Zanno, this method is becoming much more popular and is on the cutting edge of 3D modeling technology. However, the primary method of modeling is still molding and casting. This method is a week-long process involving many chemicals and the molds don’t last for very long, according to Zanno.

In the past, Zanno has had paleoartists work on the final models of dinosaurs seen in children’s books that show the dinosaur with its skin in its natural habitat. Recently, she has reached out to graphic artists from deviantART, an online art sharing community, to help come up with final models.

Zanno said she is open to having design students from NC State help with these kinds of projects in the future.