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3-D Modeling of Museum Fossils

July 30, 2018

Written by Neha Patel

This summer, during my National Science Foundation: Collections in Support of Biological Research (NSF: CSBR) internship with the Paleontology Unit at the North Carolina Science Museum I learned many things. But, I think the most interesting thing that I learned was photogrammetry. Photogrammetry is the process of creating a 3-D image of a fossil. The fossil that I focused on for this project was a Gonioclymenia sp. (NCSM 8403).

Photo of the top surface of NCSM 4803 Gonioclymenia sp. The image shows a coiled shell and a scale bar

View of top surface of NCSM 4803 Gonioclymenia sp.

Before delving further into the process of photogrammetry, let me first tell you about the wonderful fossil itself. Gonioclymenia sp. is from the Devonian period which lasted from 416 million years ago to 358 million years ago, during the Paleozoic Era. This fossil is an ammonite. Ammonites are now extinct, but they are part of a group of marine mollusks known as cephalopods.

Photo of a reconstruction of what a Devonian ammonite might have looked like. There is a gray coild shell in the center of the image and some pinkkish-gray tentacles coming out of the shell. Image was copied from http://www.bgs.ac.uk/discoveringGeology/time/Fossilfocus/ammonite.html

Image of what an ammonite may have looked like during the Devonian Period. Photo copied from http://www.bgs.ac.uk/discoveringGeology/time/Fossilfocus/ammonite.html

The biggest reason I became so interested in this fossil is it is a very pretty, shiny specimen. This specimen was originally found in Morocco, and prior to its arrival in the Paleontology Collections had been prepared, trimmed and polished. This type of ammonite is commonly sold in fossil and rock shops and this one came to the museum via a private donation.

Photo of the underside of NCSM 4803 Gonioclymenia sp. Images shows a coiled black and gray ammonite with a rectangular scale bar.

Underside of NCSM 4803 Gonioclymenia sp.

The process of creating a 3-D image is actually quite time consuming. In order to accomplish it correctly, the first thing I had to do was take pictures of the specimen. I did this is using a light box and a professional camera. In this case, I used a Canon Mark II camera, along with a Fotodiox light box. Also, since this was a larger fossil, I used a regular lens as opposed to a macro lens.

Image of both the light box and camera used to create the 3-D model.The lightbox is the black rectangular object on the left of the image. The camera is the black object to the lower right of the image.

Image of both the light box and camera used to create the 3-D model.

In order to correctly create a 3-D model of the fossil, I had to take pictures using a tripod at three different heights; from the top of the light box, from the middle of the light box, and from the bottom of the light box. This is done so that the fossil is visible from all vantage points. I had to do this for both the top and the underside of the fossil.

Image of a woman wearing dark pants, a dark shirt, and a baseball cap taking a picture of the fossil using the tripod and the light box.

Image of me taking a picture of the fossil using the tripod and the light box.

The most tedious part of this entire process is I had to rotate the fossil on a turntable about 10 to 15 after every photo is taken until the fossil has been turned a complete 360º. It’s definitely monotonous and can get boring, but that’s the price we pay in order to have something cool to show off in the end.

Image of NCSM 4803 Gonioclymenia sp. on the turntable. The fossil is the gray and black coiled object in the center of the photo. It is sitting on a round turntable that has been covered in newspaper.

Image of NCSM 4803 Gonioclymenia sp. on the turntable

Finally, once all of the pictures had been taken, I transferred them to a program called Agisoft PhotoScan Professional. I then used this program, through various complicated steps that I will not bore you with, to generate the 3-D image of the fossil. Instead, I will include the link to the final product that you may want to take a gander at! Just click on the following link to view this pretty, shiny fossil in all its 3-D glory: https://skfb.ly/6AvKp

Neha Patel’s Internship is funded through a National Science Foundation Collections in Support of Biological Research (NSF: CSBR) grant to the Paleontology Unit at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.

 

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