First found on an English farm in 1955, the skull fossil of this giant marine reptile, Protoichthyosaurus prostaxalis, is nearly 1-meter long and contains bones that are rarely preserved. Whereas most unearthed ichthyosaur fossils are distorted or damaged, this particular skull maintained most of its original form -- allowing for accurate reconstruction, noted lead author Dean Lomax, honorary visiting scientist and paleontologist at the University of Manchester.
Lomax and colleagues acquired micro-CT scans of the fossil and used the data to digitally reconstruct the ichthyosaur skull and mandible. Then they created a life-size 3D-printed model of this reconstruction, which they subsequently imaged using a large CT scanner. This finally allowed them to produce a full, color-coded 3D virtual model of the skull.
"It's taken more than half a century for this ichthyosaur to be studied and described, but it has been worth the wait," Lomax said. "Not only has our study revealed exciting information about the internal anatomy of the skull of this animal, but our findings will aid other paleontologists in exploring its evolutionary relationship with other ichthyosaurs."
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