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The Q? Blog

A Whale of a 3D Print

by Devin Reese -- Jul 1, 2014

Devin is the lead digital science writer for the Q?rius website. She writes and gathers media for the Smithsonian Science How? webcast series,...

Members of the 3D fossil whale team. Smithsonian photo NHB2014-00826 by James DiLoreto
Members of the 3D fossil whale team. Smithsonian photo NHB2014-00826 by James DiLoreto

Want to see the largest 3D digital print of a fossil ever made? It’s a 20 x 8 foot print of a whale skeleton hanging in Q?rius at the National Museum of Natural History. Smithsonian paleontologist Dr. Nick Pyenson and South American colleagues uncovered the fossil skeleton at a site in the remote Atacama Desert of Chile.

In 2010, a construction crew digging to widen the Pan-American Highway exposed an area that turned out to have over 40 fossil whale skeletons, plus other marine animals. Nick had to document and move the whale fossils in a hurry, since the site was to be paved to add another traffic lane to the highway.

Fossil whale graveyard in the Atacama DesertIn a collaborative fieldwork blitz, Nick and Chilean paleontologists from local and national museums, along with the Universidad de Chile, excavated as many fossil skeletons at Cerro Ballena (“whale hill”) as they could.

What were so many whales and other marine animals doing in a desert? By Nick's estimates, the fossils were 6-9 million years old, from the late Miocene. The sediments of the desert used to be a tidal flat. Four distinct layers of remains were laid down over a period of about 10,000-16,000 years.

Looking at the position and condition of the skeletons, Nick concluded that each layer was a mass stranding event. Modern large marine mammals, including whales, seals, and manatees, occasionally strand onto beaches because of sickness from toxic algal blooms. Four algal blooms over thousands of years seem to have sickened the Atacama whales, causing them to strand. The carcasses were covered by sand and eventually fossilized.

Like most of the whales found at Cerro Ballena, the whale chosen for the huge 3D print is a "rorqual," the group that includes humpbacks, fin whales, and the largest animals ever to live on Earth, blue whales. The one on display is the most complete rorqual skeleton discovered at Cerro Ballena. Nick talked about the find during a Smithsonian Science How? webcast.

While the skeleton went to a museum in Chile, and the excavation site was paved, detailed information extracted in the field came to the Smithsonian. Nick recruited a team of digitizing experts to Chile to capture the shape of the fossil by taking photographs and scanning it with lasers.  Back in D.C., the digital data were interpreted into a high-resolution image. The 3D digital data are freely accessible, allowing researchers from all over the world to continue to study the whale fossils. See the digitizing process at the Smithsonian Cerro Ballena site.

Finally, a 3D printing company volunteered to bring the whale skeleton back to its real size and shape. Watch a 3D Systems video about how the print was made, layer by layer, and brought to the museum.

You can see the real, lifesize, 3D print of this ancient whale in Q?rius when you visit the National Museum of Natural History.