Above: Image © johnnylemonseed, iStockphoto.com

Scientists have experimented with 3D printers to do all kinds of things - make food, build houses, and even replace human tissue . Now, there’s another item on that list: studying prehistoric sea creatures!

A team of researchers at the University of Southampton used 3D printing to recreate the flippers of a prehistoric marine reptile called the plesiosaur, which lived at the same time as dinosaurs and went extinct 65 million years ago.

Scientists have long been interested in the plesiosaurs’ mysterious flippers. Many sea creatures have different front and back flippers. The front flippers are mainly for thrust, while the back flippers are for steering. But the front and back flippers of the plesiosaurs look almost exactly the same.

Clearly, plesiosaurs moved differently than other flippered creatures. The question was, how?

That’s where 3D printers came in. Researchers printed imitation plesiosaur flippers using plesiosaur fossils as blueprints. Researchers also studied x-rays of modern-day marine animals that use flippers to move. They used the information from these x-rays to create a robot that would move the flippers.

Researchers from several different STEM fields worked together to create this plesiosaur model. What fields do you think they came from?

Researchers then put the robotic flippers in a water tank and saw that plesiosaurs could indeed use all four flippers to move - very efficiently, in fact. No wonder this creature used the four-flipper system for more than 100 million years!

Scientists sometimes use the movements of animals, both living and extinct, to design tools and machines that humans can use. What do you think they could design with this new information about plesiosaur movement?

This study was lead by Luke Muscutt, a PhD student in Engineering and the Environment. If you were a PhD student on a research team, and could use 3D printing to solve a mystery from the past, which one would you choose?

Learn more!

About this study

About plesiosaurs

Plesiosaur
Encyclopedia Brittanica

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