News Release

Digital dinosaurs: New research employs high-end technology to restore dinosaur fossil

Peer-Reviewed Publication

Society of Vertebrate Paleontology

Originally Preserved and Digitally Restored Skull, <i>Erlikosaurus andrewsi</i>

image: This image shows a comparison between originally preserved and digitally restored skull of the Cretaceous dinosaur Erlikosaurus andrewsi. view more 

Credit: Image courtesy Journal of Vertebrate PaImage courtesy <i>Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology</i>leontology

Fossils are usually deformed or incompletely preserved when they are found, after sometimes millions of years of fossilization processes. Consequently, fossils have to be studied very carefully to avoid damage, and are sometimes they are difficult to access, as they might be located in remote museum collections. An international team of scientists, led by Dr. Stephan Lautenschlager from the University of Bristol now solved some of these problems by using modern computer technology, as described in a recent issue of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

The team consisting of Dr. Stephan Lautenschlager and Professor Emily Rayfield from the University of Bristol, Professor Lindsay Zanno from the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and North Carolina State University, Dr. Perle Altangerel from the National University of Ulaanbaatar, and Professor Lawrence Witmer from Ohio University employed high-resolution X-ray computed tomography (CT scanning) and digital visualisation techniques to restore a rare dinosaur fossil.

Lead author, Dr. Stephan Lautenschlager of Bristol's School of Earth Sciences said: "With modern computer technology, such as CT scanning and digital visualisation, we now have powerful tools at our disposal, with which we can get a step closer to restore fossil animals to their life-like condition."

The focus of the study was the skull of Erlikosaurus andrewsi, a 3-4m (10-13ft) large herbivorous dinosaur called a therizinosaur, which lived more than 90 million years ago during the Cretaceous Period in what is now Mongolia.

"The fossil skull of Erlikosaurus andrewsi is one-of-a-kind and the most complete and best preserved example known for this group of dinosaurs. As such it is of high scientific value" explains co-author Professor Emily Rayfield.

Using a digital model of the fossil, the team virtually disassembled the skull of Erlikosaurus into its individual elements. Then they digitally filled in any breaks and cracks in the bones, duplicated missing elements and removed deformation by applying retro-deformation techniques, digitally reversing the steps of deformation. In a final step, the reconstructed elements were re-assembled. This approach not only allowed the restoration of the complete skull of Erlikosaurus, but also the study of its individual elements.

However, using digital models has further advantages adds Dr. Lawrence Witmer: "Digital models allow the study of the external and internal features of a fossil. Furthermore, they can be shared quickly amongst researchers – without any risk to the actual fossil and without having to travel hundreds or even thousands of miles to see the original."

Co-author, Dr. Lindsay Zanno agrees: "Therizinosaurs , with their pot bellies and comically enlarged claws, are arguably the most bizarre theropod dinosaurs. We know a lot about their oddball skeletons from the neck down, but this is the first time we've been able to digitally dissect an entire skull."


The research was funded by a research fellowship to Stephan Lautenschlager from the German Volkswagen Foundation, hosted by Emily Rayfield and grants from the National Science Foundation to Lawrence Witmer.

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About the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology

Founded in 1940 by thirty-four paleontologists, the Society now has more than 2,300 members representing professionals, students, artists, preparators, and others interested in VP. It is organized exclusively for educational and scientific purposes, with the object of advancing the science of vertebrate paleontology.

Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology

The Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology (JVP) is the leading journal of professional vertebrate paleontology and the flagship publication of the Society. It was founded in 1980 by Dr. Jiri Zidek and publishes contributions on all aspects of vertebrate paleontology.


Lautenschlager, S., L.M. Witmer, P. Altangerel, L.E. Zanno and E.J. Rayfield. 2014. Cranial anatomy of Erlikosaurus andrewsi (Dinosauria, Therizinosauria): new insights based on digital reconstruction. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 34(6):1-29.


Stephan Lautenschlager (lead author), University of Bristol, UK
Email: Phone: +44 (0) 117 394 1351

Emily Rayfield, University of Bristol, UK
Email: Phone: + 44 (0)117 394 1210

Lindsay Zanno, North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences & North Carolina State University, USA
Email: Phone: (773) 750-7715

Lawrence Witmer, Ohio University, USA
Email: Phone: (740) 591-7712


Dr. Paul Barrett
Earth Sciences department
Vertebrates and Anthropology Palaeobiology
Natural History Museum
Cromwell Road

Dr. Stephen Brusatte
Chancellor's Fellow in Vertebrate Palaentology
Grant Institute,
James Hutton Road
Edinburgh EH9 3FE
Phone: +44 (0) 131 650 6039

Dr. James Clark
Department of Biological Sciences
George Washington University
2023 G Street. NW
Washington, D.C. 20052
Tel. Lab: (202) 994-9210
Tel. Office: (202) 994-7144

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