Friday 19 June 2015

Fossils on the small screen at Dinosaur Encounter, SeaCity.

As part of the exhibition at SeaCity I was commissioned to create videos to accompany two of the exhibits, the Sandown Academy crocodile which was worked on by Michela Johnson and the nodosaurid which is being worked on by myself and Sarah Strachan. These videos are intended as interpretive aids to help visits understand the fossils and hopefully allow people to see how the bones fit together and give an idea of what the animals looked like in real life.

Still from the croc video showing bone outline highlighted to
aid interpretation of the specimen.

The croc skull itself is still encased in the block of matrix it was found in. This means that from the outside only cross sections of bone can be seen and these can be difficult to interpret to the untrained eye (and often to the trained eye too). The skull has been scanned using the University of Southampton’s CT scanner and 3D data had been extracted. The croc skull video features footage of this CT data and concentrates on how this technique allows us obtain detailed data without even prepping the fossil. In fact, as CT resolution improves over the years it’s entirely possible we won’t need to prep some specimens that might prove difficult to reveal for any number of reasons including matrix that is too hard or too soft. The great thing about the CT data is it translates readily into visuals and thus lends itself to motion graphics; we can highlight certain elements and add labels to aid understanding. 

The crocodile video next to the specimen as part of the display.
Image: Liz Martin.

The Polacanthus video is more focussed on the bones themselves. As I’m working on this specimen for my PhD I already had enough data to attempt a reconstruction for the video, which is played on a screen situated above the display case containing the dinosaur. It has to be stressed this reconstruction was the first I have done of the dinosaur, and was produced primarily for the video and not publication. For the sequences showing the bones of the specimen I used the actual photogrammetry data and this also enabled me to make relatively accurate inferences about the length and height of the animal. I based the missing elements of the skeletal reconstruction on Polacanthus foxii and other nodosaurids. The final muscle and life reconstructions were far more speculative but give a relatively good idea of how the animal looked in life. The neutral pose was chosen deliberately to keep the orientation of the bones as easy to see on screen as possible; unfortunately time did not permit a more dynamic reconstruction, but watch this space . . . 

First reconstruction of the nodosaur currently being studied at
University of Southampton. Video still.

Monday 15 June 2015

Encountering dinosaurs at SeaCity Museum

As is fitting following the arrival of the summer blockbuster Jurassic World, dinosaurs are coming to the south of England this summer with a major exhibition at SeaCity museum in Southampton along with events at other venues in the region (website here), and I was fortunate enough to have been involved in this exciting project.

All it needs is a real dinosaur . . .
the exhibition space at SeaCity with the build in progress.
The work of palaeontologists, all postgrad students and Research Associates from the University of Southampton, is well represented with several of the members of the Southampton Vertebrate Palaeontology Groups’ work featuring in the exhibition. This is a great opportunity to see the research happening at the university and the specimens we are working with, as  the subjects of our research will be on display too.

I’m pleased to say the nodosaurid will be prominently featured and this is a good chance to see this superb specimen, along with a crocodile skull and other material from Britain currently under study at the university. Also featured are a cast of the skeleton of the ornithopod dinosaur Maiasaura and skull casts of Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops; these are impressive exhibits and along with an animatronic tyrannosaur and baryonychid provide a real sense of drama, but it’s always the bones that are the highlights for me.

Doing the dinosaur jigsaw.
I was responsible for laying out the dinosaur in its display case and producing two of the videos that serve as interpretive aids to the public: one for the nodosaur, one for the crocodile. After a couple of trips out to Ikea to get decent packing boxes (mmm . . . meatballs) and ordering in a jumbo roll of bubble wrap I got down to the task of carefully stowing the specimen in boxes for the trip to SeaCity. A few days later we arrived at the exhibition hall and started the job of laying out the dinosaur in it’s impressive 3m x 2m display case. As part of the video I had already planned the layout so this saved time, but of course there were issues . . .

Firstly, although I’d recorded the majority of the specimen for my PhD there were significant parts missing and I didn’t have time to record all of these so this will have to wait until the exhibition closes at the end of September. This meant I was unfamiliar with some elements and needed to be sure I was putting them in the correct place, not too hard a task. Secondly, the fragmentary nature of the some of the skeleton, especially the limbs meant that when laid out they looked a little lost and out of context. Rather than place these bones where I thought they might have gone in life I grouped them; a bit of artistic licence to enable easier interpretation of the skeleton as otherwise odd bits would be scattered around the appendicular skeleton and osteoderms and look lost.

The nodosaur final layout.
The final layout certainly looks the part. I had to curl the tail to fit the skeleton in and compress certain parts of the skeleton that are either missing or held at other institutions. Most of the sacral shield is missing because although it was recovered it remains in hundreds of pieces a little smaller than roman tesserae; however some is still present and is viewable on the upper surface of the ilium, although this needs prepping out as it is partially covered with matrix from the plant debris bed it was excavated from. This is an impressive skeleton and gives a real idea of the size of this dinosaur plus its spectacular armour.

The accompanying video gives an aid to interpretation and also shows a tentative 3D reconstruction of both the skeleton and life appearance of the dinosaur. This will be the subject of my next post, so stay tuned.