A three-dimensional approach to visualize pairwise morphological variation and its application to fragmentary palaeontological specimens

March 17, 2021

Matt A. White (1,2), Nicolás E. Campione (1)
PeerJ, 9, January 2021. DOI: 10.7717/peerj.10545


Australovenator; NMV P186153; Megaraptorid; Pairwise


Classifying isolated vertebrate bones to a high level of taxonomic precision can be difficult. Many of Australia’s Cretaceous terrestrial vertebrate fossil-bearing deposits, for example, produce large numbers of isolated bones and very few associated or articulated skeletons. Identifying these often fragmentary remains beyond high-level taxonomic ranks, such as Ornithopoda or Theropoda, is difficult and those classified to lower taxonomic levels are often debated. The ever-increasing accessibility to 3D-based comparative techniques has allowed palaeontologists to undertake a variety of shape analyses, such as geometric morphometrics, that although powerful and often ideal, require the recognition of diagnostic landmarks and the generation of sufficiently large data sets to detect clusters and accurately describe major components of morphological variation. As a result, such approaches are often outside the scope of basic palaeontological research that aims to simply identify fragmentary specimens. Herein we present a workflow in which pairwise comparisons between fragmentary fossils and better known exemplars are digitally achieved through three-dimensional mapping of their surface profiles and the iterative closest point (ICP) algorithm. To showcase this methodology, we compared a fragmentary theropod ungual (NMV P186153) from Victoria, Australia, identified as a neovenatorid, with the manual unguals of the megaraptoran Australovenator wintonensis (AODF604). We discovered that NMV P186153 was a near identical match to AODF604 manual ungual II-3, differing only in size, which, given their 10–15Ma age difference, suggests stasis in megaraptoran ungual morphology throughout this interval. Although useful, our approach is not free of subjectivity; care must be taken to eliminate the effects of broken and incomplete surfaces and identify the human errors incurred during scaling, such as through replication. Nevertheless, this approach will help to evaluate and identify fragmentary remains, adding a quantitative perspective to an otherwise qualitative endeavour.

How Our Software Was Used

Dragonfly was used for the segmentation of CT-data.

Author Affiliation

(1) Palaeoscience Research Centre, School of Environment and Rural Science, University of New England, Armidale, NSW, Australia.
(2) Palaeontology, Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum of Natural History, Winton, QLD, Australia.