Through the support of the Friends of Petrified Forest and the Petrified Forest Museum Association, the park’s Department of Science and Resource Management at Petrified Forest was able to acquire a high-tech laser scanner and fast gaming laptop at the end of 2021 with the intention of digitally capturing three-dimensional anatomical details from Triassic fossils for park research, exhibits, and outreach.
Dr. Adam Marsh, the lead paleontologist at Petrified Forest, has learned the ins and outs of the scanner and its software and has quickly implemented this system into the park’s paleontology program, collecting nearly 125 gigabytes of anatomical data.
Relatively small and anatomically simple fossils can be digitally captured in a manner of minutes, but larger, more complex fossils can take several hours of data acquisition and computer processing. The product is a library of digital 3D meshes with colorized overlays, and the meshes can be 3D printed.
The first major project being undertaken with the 3D scanner is acquiring data for a collaborative project nearly 30 years in the making. For that amount of time, the go-to scientific reference for vertebrate fossils of the Triassic in the American West has been a bulletin of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science called, Late Triassic (Carnian and Norian) Tetrapods from the Southwestern United States, by Robert Long and Phillip Murry (1995).
That volume focused on the history of Triassic paleontology in the Southwest and went into paleontological detail of the major tetrapod groups known at the time, including dicynodonts, phytosaurs, aetosaurs, crocodylomorphs, and dinosaurs, including naming and describing new species.
This “Triassic Bible” is an invaluable resource and much of Long and Murry’s data was collected from their research at PEFO and on other Triassic fossils housed at the University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology, New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, Museum of Texas Tech University, Texas Memorial Museum, American Museum of Natural History, University of California Museum of Paleontology, and Museum of Northern Arizona.
However, our understanding of the stratigraphy, geochronology, taxonomic relationships, and overall diversity of the Late Triassic in the American Southwest has contributed to a massive amount of information that can now be pulled together in a synthetic way similar to Long and Murry (1995).
Dr. Marsh and Dr. Bill Parker at PEFO, along with Drs. Michelle Stocker and Sterling Nesbitt at Virginia Tech and Dr. Randy Irmis at the Natural History Museum of Utah are editing an updated volume, tentatively titled, Non-marine Tetrapods from the Late Triassic of North America, to be published online digitally as individual chapters by 2025, the 30th anniversary of the original volume, in the paleontological journal PaleoBios. Drs. Marsh, Stocker, and Irmis are all former PEFO paleontology interns.
Similar to Long and Murry’s volume, this updated publication will focus heavily on the Triassic research at Petrified Forest, but it will have a wider North American scope, include a diverse array of at least 20 coauthors, and will provide full-color figures and links to 3D data from important specimens.
Since the summer of 2022, Dr. Marsh has visited the Texas Vertebrate Paleontological Collections (formerly the Texas Memorial Museum) and the Museum of Northern Arizona to digitize specimens to be featured in the 30th-anniversary volume, and he will focus on scanning important PEFO specimens this winter.
Already some of these scans have been printed on a smaller scale and used for National Fossil Day at the park. Future trips to Berkeley, Lubbock, and New Mexico will continue to gather 3D data for publication in this exciting new volume.
Petrified Forest National Park and the Friends of Petrified Forest National Park would like to give an enormous THANK YOU to all of you who helped to make this possible. The technological capability provided by the new 3D scanner, in the hands of these expert paleontologists, has made the updating of the “Triassic Bible” possible, which will support the work of the next generation of Triassic paleontologists not just at Petrified Forest but across the country and around the world. Donations are always accepted for our continuing support of the park and its programs.