Dr Espen Knutsen is Senior Curator: Palaeontology at the Queensland Museum Network, based at the Museum of Tropical Queensland (MTQ) campus in Townsville. Project DIG will be expanding the 3D technology infrastructure at MTQ, so we spoke to Espen about how it will affect his work.  

You’ve worked on some exciting projects over the last 12 years – what are some of the highlights?
Without question, being able to work in the remote Arctic has been the biggest highlight to date – just experiencing a place that’s so different, which also happens to be one of the richest localities for ancient marine reptile fossils on the planet was incredible. In some places we could jump from one skeleton to the next.

Tell us a bit about your role at MTQ?
There’s a lot of variety in my work. Some days I will be working on collection items, others I spend engaging with the general public at the museum or visiting schools, and some days I am in the field searching for new fossils of ancient organisms for the MTQ collections. Before I can do much research on new discoveries, there is also a fair bit of lab work involved, for example extracting the fossils from the rock, dating the rock they are in, and looking at the rock itself to understand the environment the animals lived in.

Project DIG’s goals for using new technologies such as photogrammetry will allow you to approach your work in new ways – how will that affect your current projects?
Photogrammetry and 3D modelling in general is a great, relatively new way for palaeontologist to collect and analyse data from fossil specimens. A 3D model of a skeleton can be used to understand how the different parts of an animal moved, for instance its legs and jaws. Photogrammetry and laser scanning are also great tools for collecting data in the field, especially from specimens which we might not otherwise be able to collect such as dinosaur footprints. Whole trackways spanning several tens of meters can now be ‘collected’ virtually and studied in detail back at the office. All this new 3D data will become an integral part of how museums preserve the information fossil specimens contain. Having a virtual collection ensures most of that data will be preserved long-term.

How do you think these new technologies will change the way researchers and scientists from QMN and elsewhere will work in the future?
Although palaeontologists will always need some of the traditional methods for collecting and studying fossil material, I think technologies such as photogrammetry and CT scanning will allow researchers to analyse specimens more efficiently and collaborate across large distances much more easily. Once we have generated a 3D model, we can then share it with other researchers as a file over the internet, so researchers in different locations can work on the same specimen simultaneously without the need for expensive long-distance travel. I also believe these new technologies will generate new ways for researchers to share their work with the general public through online platforms and immersive experiences, such as virtual reality content.

What are you most excited about working on as part of Project DIG?
One of the more exiting projects so far is the CT scanning a plesiosaur which was found north of Chillagoe in northern Queensland about 20 years ago. Because of the high pyrite content in the rock surrounding the fossils, it is impossible to safely extract them, so for years they’ve been sitting in storage in the collection. However, as CT scanning capabilities have improved significantly over the last few decades, we can now scan this specimen and ‘extract’ the bones virtually from the rock on a computer – so we’ll finally be able to study it.