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Paleontology, Visualization, and VFX



If you haven't read my previous article on Archaeology in VFX, I recommend reading that article first. (You can find it HERE) It's not mandatory to read first, but go check it out if you feel inclined

In this article we are going to talk more about how the world of CGI is being implemented in Paleontology. In cultural and historical fields, it is incredibly important to show where we came from, and the creatures that existed before us. So let's get started into how visual effects are being used as a preservation tool for scientists.

3-D Reconstructions

3D reconstructions are a huge part of modern day Paleontology. By reconstructing a fossil or creature in a 3D environment we can explore it in a less invasive way than if we were to pick it off the ground and open it up. This technique can also help us to explore the anatomy, development, and preservation of fossils. We can also test hypotheses on 3D reconstructions  rather than destroying something in its natural state.

In our previous Archaeology article we mentioned how 3D models and Photogrammetry were being used to create 3D scans and recreations of artifacts. The same techniques are being used on fossils, as well as some others. One of them being Tomography.


Tomography makes it possible to image a series of 2D sections or slices through a fossil with X-rays, and to use them to make a 3D reconstruction of a specimen. Through this technique, numerous fossils have been able to be preserved and digitally characterized so they can be safely analysed


Tomography also allows for large 3D digital datasets to be shared and collected. This provides a solution to a long time issue of access to rare fossil material. Another problem Tomography solves is how to extract fossils safely from their host rock. The conventional approach is to physically remove the rock from the fossil using either a mechanical method, or stripping away the enclosing material using drilling tools. This often causes damage to the specimens, and is risky to the preservation process. For instance, traditional excavation can damage delicate structures, preserved soft tissues and other exposed bones or shells. By scanning the objects into a 3D environment there is now no need to risk damaging or cutting up an object physically to solve a hypothesis.

Tomography is not a recent innovation in paleontology. Its roots can be traced to the early twentieth century, where a scientist by the name of William Sollas began the task of manually grinding away fossils embedded in rock. Then he would photograph or trace by hand the exposed surfaces. However, it won't be long until X-rays would start to replace this method, as they were seen as a fast way of imaging a fossil. In 1895, paleontologists had begun using X-rays to examine difficult-to-prepare material. 

A few other imaging techniques being used on fossils are FIB tomography, Micro-CT, Synchrotron-based tomography, Neutron tomography, Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and Laser scanning.

Educational Visualization Tools

It's fair to say one of the most important aspects of Paleontology is teaching others about the discovered information. So let's talk about how Paleontology is being taught, and how the world of CGI is pushing that along.

There are a few different questions that need to be thought about when teachers use scientific visualizations in the classroom. Some of them are key for getting students to focus and understand what is going on.


  • What do students focus on in a visualization?

  • How does the visualization promote generation of new questions?

  • How do students understand and interpret the processes that are represented?

  • What are you trying to teach? What do you want the students to learn?

So keeping these questions in mind, it is important for teachers and visualizers to form simulations and ideas around these topics. Otherwise, information will be missed, and people won't learn anything from the visual data. Keeping that also in mind, let's now discuss some other forms of media that Paleontology data is being taught in.

 Interactive models or animations, are some of the most interesting tools to use in a classroom or museum. However, it is almost impossible to format them into scientific publications. The only current way is to use 3-D PDF technology to enable direct interaction with the digital objects. These were originally developed to present 3-D data in the manufacturing, engineering and architecture industries, But they are now also slowly finding their way into scientific publications. The 3-D objects can be rotated, translated, and scaled and take in accurate measurements of digital models. These allow for students to study and manipulate a range of fossil specimens, and also interpret external and internal details.

QR codes are also being used in museums to store information in plain text or URL addresses. QR codes are perfect for creating access to quick and easy to understand information. 

Virtual Reality Visualizations

As of 2017, The University of South Florida’s Center for Visualization & Applied Spatial Technologies and Integrative Biology departments are bringing dinosaurs to life in VR. A Biology professor named Ryan Carney, is using the technology to create interactive holographic images of dinosaurs. He wants to explain and  better understand the origins of flight, and the connection of prehistoric fossils to modern flying species. Dr. Carney is using a combination of X-ray, lasers, and computer animation to generate the 3D images of the fossils in virtual and augmented reality. He is one of the first scientists to fully integrate VR in their work, and hopes to see the potential for virtual reality as a tool for scientific research grow over the years.

Around about the same time in 2016, another scientist; Carlos Ginés Vázquez, set out to create a worldwide Fossil VR Database. This database is a collection of artifacts that have been scanned into the app and recreated in 3D for users to examine in detail. It includes small fossils trapped in sedimentary rock,skulls and other bones of dinosaurs. The Fossil VR Database is still in an early release version, but so far is doing fairly well.

Visual Effects, Paleontology, and Cinematic Visualization

While I was researching for this article, I found an interesting website that I thought was worth mentioning. You can check it out HERE.

SciVfx is a Cinematic Scientific Visualization site that provides diagrams, abstractions and visual references for 3D artists to link science back into their work. It is overseen by artist Greg Barta from the United Kingdom. He aims to create a database of accessible forms of science communication, and visuals for photo-real CG and science based visual effects. Currently, there are some open access tutorials and reference material on the site, but Greg has stated that the content will expand into larger categories of science as time progresses.

The Current Evolution of Computational Paleontology

As technology evolves, so will the preservation techniques in Paleontology. Here are a few imaging sciences to look out for in the future, as well as some that are being developed right now.


In the last three decades, CT scanning and related imaging techniques (like neutron scanning) have opened up doors for investigations of fossil structures. Initially these studies were conducted on medical CT units, but now we can use micro and nano-level imaging to see inside fossils. 

As we've seen media and Paleontology go hand in hand. Dinosaurs are still one of the most important and popular topics to cover in the media. However, there are more topics to Paleontology than just dinosaurs. A lot of the study depends on the scientific literacy of the public, so it's highly important we continue to develop new ways of teaching. The best way to do this fast, is through TV or streaming based programs, but it's not a topic that platforms sell well. So hardly any content is created. This is definitely something that needs to change.

Finally, a  topic that we might see happen in the future is the development of Deep Time Earth Life Observatories (DETELOs). These are programs that would allow focused efforts by teams of scientists to increase the pace of Paleontology research quickly and effectively. These teams would be a group of 10-20 paleontologists, geochemists, stratigraphers, geochronologists, paleoclimatologists, modelers and other geoscientists. By creating a unique team of researchers this would allow a unique perspective into how our Earth existed thousands of years ago, and how it will look going forward.


A virtual world of paleontology:

Virtual Fossils: a New Resource for Science Communication in Paleontology:

Developing Virtual Reality Visualizations for Unsteady Flow Analysis of Dinosaur Track Formation using Scientific Sketching:

SciVfx: Cinematic Scientific Visualizations:

Evolving Virtual and Computational Palaeontology:

Teaching Geoscience with Visualizations: Using Images, Animations, and Models Effectively:

Creating a Bridge Between Current Innovation and Our Ancient Human Relatives:

Immersive Paleoart Thesis Project:

Nova Scotia Fossil Finds:


Paleontology Resources:




From Cusps to Quarries to Continental Catastrophes:
Visualizing Spatial and Temporal Paleontological Elements
in a Digital Environment:




The future of the fossil record: Paleontology in the 21st century:



Dilophosaurus is Less Lizard, More Bird:


Advances in Paleontology:

The challenges and opportunities for research in paleontology for the next decade:

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