- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 25, 2001

The triceratops exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History is making history again.

In 1905, the triceratops skeleton was the first of its kind to be mounted in the entire world. Over the past 100 years, heat and humidity damaged the already fragile bones, many of which already had tiny cracks in them. The mineral pyrite, also known as "fool's gold," began to form inside some of the bones, eating them from within like a cancer.

On top of that, minuscule vibrations emanating from traffic on nearby Constitution Avenue and the footsteps of millions of boisterous visitors over the years had escalated the damage.

As a result, museum officials decided in 1996 that the triceratops mount, and many others in the building, needed help as soon as possible. Since then, Smithsonian scientists, led by project manager and exhibit developer Linda Deck and paleontologist and computer specialist Ralph Chapman, have teamed with various industries across the country to create the first known "digital dinosaur" in the world. The new triceratops mount will be shown to the public on May 24.

"It's been a great collaboration of academia and industry to make this happen," Mr. Chapman says. "It's been wonderful to see what technology can do."

Triceratops, a plant eater, was known for its massive skull one of the largest (in proportion to body size) of any dinosaur that ever lived. It featured two prominent horns protruding from its forehead, and it lived about 65 million to 70 million years ago, at the very end of the dinosaur period on Earth.

"Who knows, our fella might have actually seen the asteroid fall," Mr. Chapman says, referring to the popular scientific theory that the dinosaurs were wiped out by a massive asteroid that hit Earth.

The original triceratops mount was a hodgepodge of bones from more than a dozen triceratops fossils recovered worldwide, although most of the skeletal fragments came from one site in Wyoming in the 1880s. The bones were shipped to the Smithsonian along the new Transcontinental Railroad.

Smithsonian technicians used the triceratops pieces and sculpted others by hand. Other missing bones were filled in by other dinosaur species; one of the triceratop's foot bones actually was that of a duckbill dinosaur.

That is not unusual in the world of paleontology, Mr. Chapman says. Most dinosaur fossil remains have only one side represented strongly because the animals presumably died on their sides, and the side that was pressed into the earth produced the best fossils. This particular triceratops died on its right side, forcing technicians and scientists to reconstruct many bones for the left side of the body.

That is where computer technology came into play. Ms. Deck says the new exhibit will be a much more accurate representation of what a real triceratops looked like because scientists know much more about the animal now and over the years have recovered more real triceratops bones to replace the ones from other dinosaurs in the mount.

The original bones were laser-scanned to record them in three dimensions and then fed into a prototyping machine, which could reproduce the bones in any size. Scientists first produced the triceratops in a smaller size, about one-sixth the original, to help them figure out how the animal stood and walked. As a result, the new mount will feature a more realistic pose for the triceratops than the previous one.

When they were finished, scientists eventually made plaster and fiberglass molds for the replicant bones to finish the mount.

Ms. Deck and Mr. Chapman call the new triceratops "the first digital dinosaur" because all of their work, including the prototypes, computer-generated movement and other measurements, are stored on disks and can be sent to other scientists in other parts of the world.

Ms. Deck says all the computer work and data will be on display when the exhibit opens in May, allowing visitors to see for themselves how the mount was constructed.

"It's the first time we know of that this has been done for a dinosaur mount," Ms. Deck says. "It's going to give scientists worldwide a new way to analyze data and improve their own museum mounts."

Mr. Chapman says the renovation could not have been accomplished without the help of various private industries, including Hasbro; Virtual Surfaces Inc., a 3-D scanning company; and Evergreen Airlines.

"It's the way things like this are going to have to get done in the future, unfortunately," Mr. Chapman says. "The money for museums to do this by themselves just isn't there, not even for the Smithsonian. But we've developed some tremendous partnerships with some wonderful people, and everybody benefits in the long run."

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