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Canadian Museum of Nature Animator Wins National Geographic Digital Animation Award

Alex Tirabasso, an animator with the Canadian Museum of Nature, has earned a unique prize in the world of palaeontology—a first-ever digital modelling award from National Geographic for showing how a group of horned dinosaurs would have walked.

A visual storyteller with the museum’s Arius3D Imaging Centre, Tirabasso received the National Geographic Digital Modelling and Animation Award at the October annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. It’s the first year that the SVP has awarded a 3D digital prize, designed to supplement the 10-year-old Lazendorf PaleoArt Prize for illustration and physical 3D sculptures.

Tirabasso worked with museum researchers to develop a true-to-life scientific animation that tests the walking posture of Chasmosaurus irvinensis. This horned dinosaur was identified as a new species by researchers at the museum in the 1990s.

Tirabasso’s animation helped museum Research Associate Dr. Rob Holmes resolve an ongoing question about the gait of this dinosaur, which belongs to a group known as ceratopsians. The researchers hypothesized that it might have either a pillar-like stance similar to an elephant, or a sprawling, squat-like stance like a lizard. Without the 3D animation, their ability to answer this question was limited to drawings and physical study of the bones that make up the dinosaur’s hand and limb.

Enter Tirabasso and the museum’s 3D imaging centre. “For the first time, we were able to merge scan data for ceratopsian limb bones with modern animation techniques to visualize and test the hypothesis,” says Tirabasso, who has a background in biology as well as a degree from the renowned animation program of Oakville’s Sheridan College. “It’s satisfying to receive this award because it acknowledges both the animation skills as well as the science it addresses.”

The 30-second animation, assembled from scans of the 25 bones in the forelimb, showed the most efficient walking posture to be an intermediate form, somewhere between a pillar-like and sprawling stance. The animation also revealed how the bones would move in relation to each other as the dinosaur ambled along.

Tirabasso and his co-worker, imaging specialist Paul Bloskie, are part of a unique group providing 3D imaging, computer graphics and animation expertise to scientific and heritage communities. His 3D digital visualizations and other animations are assisting in functional morphological studies of chewing mechanisms, locomotion, swimming movements, ranges of articulation and more. He has completed virtual 3D reconstructions of extinct animals, including Puijila darwini, a recent discovery by museum scientist Natalia Rybczynski that garnered international attention in 2009.

“We are excited for this great recognition of Alex’s skills and for our 3D imaging centre,” notes Maureen Dougan, Interim President and CEO for the Canadian Museum of Nature. “We will continue to apply their creative talents to our scientific expertise, as we describe new species and further our knowledge of the natural world, both in the past and the present.”

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