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ichthyosaur drawing

Enter the Sea Dragon

By 3D Program on Mon, 12/19/2022 - 13:09

Enter the Sea Dragon experience

Voyager, the Smithsonian’s web platform for viewing 3D data, provides a rich experience for users to interactively explore Smithsonian’s collection of 3D models along with curated information. With annotations, articles, and advanced tools for visualizing and measuring the data, Voyager gives in-depth self-exploration and learning. Our current development for the platform seeks an elegant way to guide the viewer through a linear narrative about an object.


This is where the sea dragon enters; a team of scientists -- including researchers from the Smithsonian Institution, Vanderbilt University, the Natural History Museum of Utah, the University of Utah, the University of Nevada, Reno, University of Edinburgh, University of Texas at Austin, Vrije University Brussels, and University of Oxford -- worked over the past few years to understand an unusual set of fossil skeletons in eastern Nevada belonging to ichthyosaurs. These prehistoric animals were marine predators that lived for over 150 million years during the time of the dinosaurs, but in the oceans. The species in Nevada, dating to about 230 million years ago,  would have resembled 50 foot long dolphins but thick and with hind flippers.


Skeletal reconstruction of the Triassic ichthyosaurs Shonisaurus, 2022. (Credit Neil Kelley / Vanderbilt University)


By analyzing a cluster of ichthyosaur skeletons preserved together at Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park in Nevada, the researchers, led by Neil Kelley of Vanderbilt University, concluded that the multitude of skeletons represented a breeding ground. Among other evidence, the researchers noted the lack of adequate food sources in the area, and presence of newborn and embryonic Ichthyosaur bones. They also found that the skeletons in the park spanned in age by hundreds of thousands of years, which means that generations returned to this same location to breed. Interestingly, this same migratory breeding behavior can be seen in modern ocean giants, such as blue whales, but these scientists think that the behavior was seen at least 200 million years before giant whales evolved.


Ichthyosaur fossil skeletons inside Quarry 2, Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park, Nevada, 2015. (credit Neil Kelley)


To aid in visualizing and analyzing these densely clustered skeletons, the scientists reached out to the Digitization Program Office (DPO) to 3D digitize the quarry at Berlin-Ichthyosaur. “I knew how DPO could work in the field based on our collaboration digitizing the fossil whale graveyard in the Atacama of Chile,” says Nick Pyenson, curator of fossil marine mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. To tell the story of scientific discovery, the team worked with DPO, who developed Scrollable Voyager, a new interface for 3D storytelling.


Inspired by dynamic examples from the New York Times and Washington Post, DPO developed a form of parallax scrolling or “scrollytelling” that takes the user through the steps of the story by simply scrolling down the web page. This technique creates an engaging experience while maintaining a simple, intuitive interaction. 


Preview of Scrollable Voyager interface. (Credit Smithsonian DPO)


A little background on the technology used: Scrollable Voyager makes use of the open source Voyager Explorer component as the background of the page. The Voyager API thentriggers steps of a Voyager “tour” (changes in view, location, color, etc.) when the user scrolls past certain points on the page. The text overlays are created in a linked Google Doc so that content creators can see changes immediately by refreshing the page. This process was especially helpful in our pilot project, with multiple researchers collaborating on the same content!


“The 3D models give us an opportunity to share information -- the actual stuff we use in our scientific reports -- in a narrative structure that can bring anyone along the path of discovery. You can see what we labeled as bone, what part of the skeleton each bone represents, and what the arrangement, connections, and condition of the bones tell us about how these animals lived and died. With DPO's help, I think we were able to create a fun way to tell the story of what we discovered and how we did it,” said Pyenson


We are thrilled with the results and invite you to scroll through a story 230 million years in the making! 

To learn more about the scientific finding discussed here, read this article from Current Biology, published today: