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Extinct Ice Age animals join the metaverse

The La Brea Tar Pits are located in urban Los Angeles, at a site where natural asphalt has seeped up from the ground for tens of thousands of years. In the past, animals became trapped in the tar and died, their bones being fossilized over time. Today, the site is famous for its deposits of Ice Age animals, particularly mammoths and mastodons, which are excavated in real time by paleontologists.

The bones of long-lost animals from the tar pits are impressive and fascinating, and are on display in the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County; but the animals themselves remain dead and extinct. In an attempt to bring some of these creatures “back to life” for visitors to the museum, scientists and designers have got together to produce lifelike, 3D animations of the long-lost species through augmented reality (AR). Dr. Matt Davis and colleagues at the Natural History Museum and La Brea Tar Pits collaborated with researchers and designers at the University of Southern California (USC) to create more than a dozen new, scientifically accurate virtual models of the Ice Age animals that used to roam the area up to 38,000 years ago. 

The team had originally set out to research how AR impacts learning in museums in general, but soon realized that there weren’t any accurate Ice Age animals in the metaverse yet. They decided to use the latest paleontological research, along with the newest design technologies, to make their own. In addition, they chose to publish all the research and detail that goes into reconstructing extinct species in the virtual world, so that others can appreciate and perhaps add to the paleoart animals in the metaverse. Their research is published today in the journal Palaeontologia Electronica.

According to study co-author Dr. William Swartout, Chief Technology Officer at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies: “The innovation of this approach is that it allows us to create scientifically accurate artwork for the metaverse without overcommitting to details where we still lack good fossil evidence.”

In some instances, when the skin and fur of an animal has been preserved, a great deal of detail is known about its appearance. For example, virtual Shasta ground sloths from La Brea can be depicted with long, shaggy fur because specimens with their skin and fur have been excavated. However, many fossils do not show this extent of detail and paleoartists have to make their own decisions about how the animals might have looked while they were alive. The researchers hope their article will bring more understanding about the processes involved in creating lifelike representations of extinct animals. 

“Paleoart can be very influential in how the public, and even scientists, understand fossil life,” said Dr. Emily Lindsey, Assistant Curator at La Brea Tar Pits and senior author of the study. Although paleoart has an important role in improving people’s understanding of prehistoric animals, a lot of paleoart is treated as an afterthought, and is not subjected to the same rigorous scrutiny as other scientific research. This can lead to particularly bad reconstructions and misrepresentations of extinct animals being propagated for generations in both popular media and academic publications.

“We think paleoart is a crucial part of paleontological research,” said Dr. Davis, the study’s lead author. “That’s why we decided to publish all the scientific research and artistic decisions that went into creating these models. This will make it easier for other scientists and paleoartists to critique and build off our team’s work.”

Visitors to the La Brea Tar Pits and Natural History Museum can now view scientifically based 3D AR animations of different animals on their cell phones. These include the giant sloth, saber-toothed cat, dire wolf, Shasta ground sloth, Harlan’s ground sloth, American lion, Columbian mammoth, American mastodon, Western camel, ancient bison, dwarf pronghorn, Western horse, teratorn bird, and short-faced bear. 

Dr. Davis and colleagues hope that other paleoartists and scientists will follow their example by publishing all the research that goes into their reconstructions of extinct species as this will lead to better and more accurate paleoart for everyone.

By Alison Bosman, Staff Writer 

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