The vertebra fossil, which belongs to a type of plant-eating dinosaur called a Plateosaurus, was discovered in Halberstadt, Germany, more than 100 years ago. After its discovery, it was tucked into a plaster jacket to prevent it from disintegrating, and displayed at the museum. But when bombs fell on Berlin during World War II, the museum was damaged and many of its fossils were reduced to dust or destroyed. Surviving artifacts were scattered, and many of them still remain unidentified to this day.
During the war, fossils from both Tanzania and Germany were housed in the same room in the museum's east wing, labeled only by dinosaur type - not location. Researchers have thus struggled to separate surviving fossils based on location. Removing the fossils from the plaster jacket, which would make the identification process easier, can cause further damage to the bones.
But German researchers have discovered a new way to identify dinosaur fossils: using computed tomography (CT) scans, they were able to see through the outer layer to learn more about the bones inside. Using CT scan technology, a team of German radiologists, paleontologists and printing experts discovered that one particular fossil - which they assumed was from Tanzania - was originally discovered in Halberstadt, Germany, between the years 1910 and 1927.
"The most important benefit of the [CT scan] method is that it is non-destructive, and the risk of harming the fossil is minimal," study author and radiologist Ahi Sema Issever of the Charite Campus Mitte told Science Daily. "Also, it is not as time-consuming as conventional preparation."
"We didn't plan the study ahead, the study planned itself along the way," Issever told ABC News.
Using a powerful 3-D printer, researchers were able to replicate the dinosaur bone from Halberstadt, leaving out the damage it had suffered in the bombing and producting a copy that was accurate down to one-thousandth of a millimeter - a feat that allows scientists around the world to exchange and share information about fossils with one another.
"If someone in Australia is a researcher on a certain dinosaur and in Canada there's another researcher and they want to exchange the fossils that they have, they don't actually have to send the real one... they could go ahead and just send a CD," Issever told ABC.
Although this is not the first time that a dinosaur bone underwent a CT scan or 3-D printing, it is the first time the two techniques were combined, and opens the door to more extensive and accurate information-sharing of fossils around the world.
"Just like Gutenberg's printing press opened the world of books to the public, digital datasets and 3-D prints of fossils may now be distributed more broadly, while protecting the original intact fossil," Issever said.