Over the past few years, we’ve seen 3D printing prove itself an invaluable resource for engineers. It’s helped us build prosthetics, instruments, drones – hell, we’ve even printed a mini jet engine that can blast at 33,000 RPM. But in the hands of creatives, the hackable tech has done something else entirely: allowed them to make unbelievable art. For University of Chicago assistant professor Dr. Allan Drummond, that art comes in the form of resurrecting ancient beasts.
A biochemistry and human genetics researcher, Drummond studies everything from how cells adapt, to the multi-million-year evolution of the species we share our planet with. It’s no surprise then, that he took a particular interest in trilobites. The extinct arthropods cruised the world’s oceans for some 270 million years – with over 17,000 known species, they are the most diverse group of animals preserved in the fossil record.
“We find their shells fossilized everywhere,” explains Drummond. “They’re museum staples – but we rarely see what they really looked like, with all of their soft tissues (legs, antennae, gills) intact.”
Determined to print a trilobite in all its glory, Drummond turned to the literature and online forums for guidance. “The first step was to look at as many trilobites as possible and choose one,” he recalls. “I’ve always loved these fossils, but the moment they turned from fossils, into living organisms for me, was when I saw the new generation of preparations displayed at Chicago’s Field Museum. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. In my mind, trilobites were flat, if beautiful, primitive creatures. Seeing those preparations made it clear how not-flat and not-primitive they were.”
In order to narrow down the options, Drummond eliminated any trilobite groups with delicate spines – which many of them had – that would easily break, as well as any that were too simple to print with extensive detail. He settled on Ceraurus, a genus that roamed the Earth in the middle to upper Ordovician, 470-445 million years ago.
“Ceraurus is ideal,” he says. “They have long yet substantial genal [head segement] and pygidial [tail segment] spines, complex thoracic armor, gorgeous curves, unmistakable trilobite form. Enough detail to warrant 3D printing, enough structural solidity to survive it.”
The next step was to draw the creature by hand, first in pencil, then in Inkscape, to provide guides for 3D modeling, which was done in Blender. “It was laborious, detail-oriented work over many, many hours,” says Drummond. “With several points where I wondered why I was doing this, and ‘wouldn’t it would be more fun to read a book or watch YouTube?'”
We’re glad he didn’t give up, because the final result is absolutely stunning. The model was printed using a form printer, which works by using a laser to cure tiny dots of liquid plastic resin into solid form. Every part in the print had to be vigorously cut from its base, polished, and reassembled – first in plastic, then cast in steel, bronze, and eventually silver.
“Using liver of sulfur, a poorly understood quasi-alchemic brew, I oxidized these pieces, creating a patina, then polished the patina off of the raised parts,” explains Drummond.
They might not be perfect, but the models were accurate enough to send paleontologists like Dr. Glenn Brock into a bout of uncontrollable “shut up, and take my money!” (We can see why.) “I’m very happy with how it turned out,” says Drummond. “When you hold [the model] in your hand, it practically squirms. You can imagine her exploring her world, questing with her antennae, seeking prey and potential mates.”
Prefer the living? Drummond hasn’t stopped with extinct trilobites. He’s also recently modeled a scarab beetle, and an incredibly detailed dividing yeast cell, which you can check out in the gallery below! Though the full pieces aren’t currently for sale, you can purchase the trilobite shell on Shapeways.
IMAGES: Allan Drummond/Instagram, The Fossil Forum