Heritage Forensics: How 3D technologies uncovered the fate of the Oxford Dodo

A tour of Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG) arrives at a juncture that takes us back hundreds of years, and then millions. WMG has become a reliable partner in the process of providing criminal evidence, from dismembered bodies to death-by-blunt-object. They’ve worked on cold cases too, but none so cold as its heritage forensic endeavours.

Using the same scanning and printing technology as they do to hold the guilty to account, WMG is finding new facts and uncovering curious fates.

New Facts

The Megalosaurus is a staple of many a science textbook thanks to William Buckland’s categorisation of it back in the 1820s: It was the first ever fossil to be recognised as the remains of a dinosaur, and is exhibited in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Over 167 million years ago, it would carry its 9-metre-long and 1400kg body around the land we now know as the UK.

In 2017, to preserve the fossil, 3,000 X-ray images were generated using the Nikon XT H320LC CT scanner with a 320kV target head, and Mark Williams of the WMG noticed something inside the dinosaur’s jaw. He and his team decided to print the scan data on an Objet260 Connex3 in a transparent photopolymeric material to better demonstrate this clever mechanism of the Megalosaurus, which they’re sure saw teeth replenished.

“X-Ray technology and 3D printing came together, because when we looked inside the jaw we could see something very interesting,” Williams told TCT. “You can see these teeth forming and what happens is they grow up, grow inside the teeth, and these teeth are not rejected, they’re actually resorbed – the enamel is so precious it is actually reabsorbed back into the jaw and then used to reform the teeth. It’s a constant supply.”

It’s a significant piece of information true of an entire species of dinosaur. Such a discovery had the Museum wondering what else they could learn from the past of its exhibits.

Curious Fates

So, last year, Williams welcomed the Oxford Dodo, famed not only for being the only dodo fossil with preserved soft tissue, but also for inspiring Lewis Carroll to write Alice in Wonderland. WMG took the remains on to preserve the piece and find out more about how the extinct dodo lived. Instead, it unearthed how this particular bird died.

“We had always assumed that it was a pet that was kept in London that died naturally and obviously donated to a museum,” Williams explained. “We actually found, to the back of the head, it had been shot, and [then] possibly brought to the UK. The whole storyline of the only surviving specimen of its type in the world [changed].”

Through the scanning process, in which WMG can maximise the resolution when capturing inanimate objects, a series of millimetre-diameter lead pellets were discovered embedded in the skin and bone. Scanning the fossil in ten sections, the images were configured in a 3D volume and cut through slice by slice non-destructively to confirm their theory.

It has been long-debated whether the dodo was hunted to extinction by Dutch sailors embarking on the island of Mauritius, whether fellow animals out-fought them for the limited supply of food, or even if their forest habitat was destroyed.

The recent findings point towards the former. What’s missing from this story, though, and perhaps surprisingly so given WMG’s work in the courtroom, is who did it and why. WMG will now put the scan data through a 3D printing system, again for exhibit at the Oxford Museum, while the Museum itself is to coordinate molecular genetic analysis to hopefully locate the region where it was shot and killed.

They feel it is important to learn as much about this one, solitary dodo as they can, to better understand a species symbolic of human-induced extinction, and more to the point, work out whether it really is.

The respective findings of the dinosaur and the dodo were largely unintentional, but finding new facts and uncovering curious fates are the essence of this kind of research. Research that is increasingly dependent on the ability to visualise and print in 3D.

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