More than two decades ago, University of Michigan paleontologist Daniel Fisher and some of his students began the laborious task of digitally scanning the bones of mastodons, mammoths and other prehistoric creatures so the images could be displayed on computers.
Fisher hoped to someday create a digital showcase where 3-D images of specimens from the U-M Museum of Paleontology's vast collection could be shared with other researchers and with the general public. Sadly, the technology needed to make that dream a reality just didn't exist at the time.
But several recent technical advances have enabled the museum to place hundreds of the scanned images on a new website called the University of Michigan Online Repository of Fossils. Initially intended as a tool to help field paleontologists identify fossils, the powerful new resource is expected to have wide appeal to students and the general public, as well, said Fisher, the museum's director.
"None of what we're doing now was possible when this all began," said Fisher, who gave a presentation about the project May 5 in Greece at the VIth International Conference on Mammoths and their Relatives.
The number of 3-D bone models on the new website is expected to grow into the thousands as additional specimens are added. All of the Museum of Paleontology's scientists and staff members contributed to the project.
"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.