Orobates pabsti lived around 300 million years ago – long before the dinosaurs. Although it has only been possible to expose part of it from the rock, this fossil, which was found in the eastern German state of Thuringia in 1998, has been digitalized, converted into a life-sized model and animated, all as part of an interdisciplinary research project.
This skeleton of a fossil terrestrial vertebrate, a so-called diadectid found near Gotha in 1998, was a sensation: the find turned out to be a specimen of a previously unknown species of diadectid. These vertebrates are close relatives of the last common ancestor of lizards, snakes, tortoises, crocodiles, birds and mammals – and thus also of humans. Diadectids lived around 300 million years ago, around 65 million years before the dinosaurs. The mineralized skeleton of Orobates pabsti is preserved almost in its entirety and is in exceptionally good condition. In 2007 it was established that a number of the fossil footprints excavated from the same site were created by Orobates pabsti. This is the oldest known connection between a track and an animal species.
Thanks to the latest research methods from various disciplines, scientists were literally able to “track down” the fossil. The starting point for the project was the skeleton and a fossilized impression of some footprints. High resolution scans were first generated using a modern computed tomography (CT) process. These scans were used to develop a 3D model on a computer, which was then animated on the basis of detailed biomechanical analyses of present-day animals.
Analysing the stride length and width of the fossil tracks allowed the researchers to draw conclusions about both the sequence of motions and Orobates pabsti’s posture. Every individual bone was subsequently printed in 3D and laboriously assembled by a taxidermist until a life-sized corporeal model of the animal had been created from the fossil find. The model highlights the fact that scientific knowledge is dependent on many factors – including technical capabilities. Thanks to supercomputers, non-destructive imaging processes and 3D printing, we are now able to obtain a three-dimensional impression of the animal, even though its material basis was not completely available and the bones were largely fragmented and deformed. These things had to be “repaired” on the computer.
The colour scheme used makes it possible to trace the methodological approach to the reconstruction. Parts coloured red were taken directly from the fossil using the scanning process. Mirrored parts (e.g. the extremities and rib cage) are blue. Those body parts which could be scaled (e.g. the spine), but also needed a great deal of modelling, are yellow. This technique allows the team of scientists to make it clear that the reconstructed skeleton of a fossil does not “authentically” reproduce the appearance of the animal, but is frequently based on conclusions and assumptions.
The research group also explored the issue of how the animal moved, with the aim of gaining insights into its way of life. Specialists measured and digitalized the bones, studied the movements of today’s reptiles, compared their anatomical structure with that of fossil specimens, made x-ray projection images and developed various models. A virtual version of the fossil was made to tread in its own footsteps, thereby using the most cutting-edge technology to generate an animation of a walking Orobates pabsti. This enabled the researchers to gain a more-or-less realistic impression of the animal’s motion. The results of the research project also included a robot of Orobates pabsti, called the OroBOT. All of these activities have laid the foundations for further research into this archosaur.
From the Stiftung Schloss Friedenstein Gotha / Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, in future to be found in the exhibition on the first floor of the Humboldt Forum.
International experts, eye witnesses and representatives from the Humboldt Forum will be adressing questions in various conversations. They will weave exciting stories and histories from different cultures and epochs, current research results and personal experiences to create surprising and sometimes astounding narratives.
Don't know — know — never know?
April 4, 2018
The first 15 of these Humboldt Forum Highlights will be presented between October 2018 and May 2019 in two formats: in an exhibition as well as during conversations that will be held at various locations in Berlin.