Friday, May 29, 2015


After four straight hours of assembly, Steve Clawson and I take a moment to appreciate the task we've accomplished - an assembled rapid prototype of the skull of Hell's Belle (a.k.a. 'Jane'). Photograph by Lisa Matel-Crumble. 
Yesterday I had a fantastic time with Mr. Steven R. Clawson (Master’s candidate, California State University, Fullerton) assembling a rapid prototype of Jane’s skull with clipping shears, a glue gun, and stirring straws! We started our task at 10:45 am and steamrolled through until 3:00 pm! Our greatest challenge was in the distortion inherent in the bones – assembling a skull in this way is an excellent test of the level of distortion that a fossil really has.

One aspect that we could not control was the dorsoventral crushing to the left maxilla, which artificially lowered the height of the ascending ramus of the maxilla and the lacrimal; this is evident where the caudal end of the nasals overrides the lacrimals, not the other way around. We also found that this distortion was carried over and enhanced in the orbitotemporal region.

The purpose of our hours of effort was to produce for the monograph a series of multiple view plates based on a striking approximation of the assembled fossil skull, and to feature it on the jacket design.

How did this collaboration come about? Back in February I attended the Burpee Museum’s annual PaleoFest, where Steven had a live, public demo of laser scanning and rapid prototyping; the prints he had on display included a full print of Jane’s skull that stopped me in my tracks: it was printed in a white plastic with a matte finish, so it looked like actual, bleached bone; the skull looked light, streamlined, beautiful, and epic! I was amazed to learn that Steven had assembled it the previous day; I immediately knew that I had found the cover image for the monograph!

Although the assembled print looked outstanding, there were a few issues with the orientation of some bones and the completeness of others. I asked Steven if he’d consider printing out a second skull for the two of us to assemble together for the monograph. I am very happy that he agreed!

One of the primary benefits of this technology is that missing bones can simply be printed from the complete opposite side. Therefore, we assembled the most complete version of Jane's skull that was possible, based on the bones that were preserved.

Toward the end of the assembly, when we had the skull inverted and while we were placing in the ectopterygoids, I had a moment of epiphany upon seeing the entire skull together (sans braincase and pterygoids). I have been so focused on each bone as separate entities for years that seeing them together as a coherent and integrated whole came as a sharp and welcome jolt. That moment has opened up for me an entirely new perspective on the specimen that I will use to truss the narrative thread in the monograph.

A huge amount of effort goes into producing a rapid prototype. For the print that Steven and I assembled, Dr. Joseph Peterson (UW-OshKosh) and his student, Kelsey Rients, had first scanned casts of each bone, a process that took 40 hours over several months. Steven then printed the digital files, a process that took 200 hours, it then took him an additional 40 hours to prepare the prints for assembly. Finally, it took the better part of the day for the two of us to assemble, trim, and glue the prints together into a coherent whole.

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Over the past few weeks I’ve returned to the revising the Jane monograph for publication, but that effort has been in earnest since last week. I am making a next-to-final pass through the manuscript patching up holes in the description, adding comparisons, and making minor, but necessary fixes to typos and the like. When my mind to too exhausted to continue, I then switch gears to drafting the index. Presently I’m in the midst of the description of the jugal, with the rest of the skull, jaws, and postcranial skeleton to go! Also on the slate is to double the number of photographic plates so that each bone is covered. All in all, it’s an Everest and Niagara of tasks.