Considering Possibilities

What can you do with a squashed skull?

Traditionally, paleontologists used clay to reconstruct the missing parts of fossils. The clay additions were educated guesses informed by other, similar fossils, if any existed.

Now paleontologists can reconstruct fossils virtually using the same equipment doctors use to scan living patients, CT scanners. Also known as computerized tomography, CT scanners create three-dimensional images by combining a series of two-dimensional X-ray images.

Computer modeling offers many advantages over clay. With computers, a researcher can easily consider dozens of possible solutions to a fossil puzzle. Computer modeling can also “repair” distortions in fossil fragments—for example, by virtually reversing the warping of a skull by geologic pressure. It lets researchers look inside structures that would normally be difficult to study (like the inside of a braincase) and lets them share images and information without having to risk handling and transporting irreplaceable specimens.