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Rebuilding the fabled “saber-tooth salmon”

Saber-tooth salmonOregon fossil being recreated in library lab

How do you recreate a create not seen in millions of years? University of Oregon paleontologist Edward Davis and librarian Dean Walton are creating a three-dimensional printout of a rare saber-toothed salmon fossil using a special printer housed at the Science Library.

Using a CT scan of the fossil as a digital model, the printer is generating a 3-D replica by melting layers of plastic and stacking them atop one another until the object is formed. After 70 hours of printing, the first piece of the printout — part of the lower jaw — was completed on December 20th. Three additional pieces will print in the coming weeks.


The fossil specimen includes the braincase, face and jaw of a six to seven foot long fish that inhabited Pacific Northwest waters about five million years ago. The specimen, uncovered in 1964 near Madras, is housed among the paleontological collections at the UO Museum of Natural and Cultural History.

The saber-toothed salmon of the Miocene to Pliocene (13 to 4 million years ago) is named for the large canine-like teeth in its upper jaw, presumably used for competition among males during spawning season, much like the hook that forms on modern male spawning sockeye salmon, according to information posted on the museum’s web site.

In 1972, Cavender and Miller described “Smilo” from four localities: The type fossil is from near the town of Madras in Jefferson County. Other Oregon specimens have been found near Worden in Klamath County.

California specimens are known from Pinole, Contra Costa County, and Turlock Lake in Stanislaus County. Except Pinole, which lies on the shores of San Francisco Bay, all these sites are located inland, suggesting that Smilo swam up freshwater courses to spawn, just like its closest living relative, the sockeye.

Current research at the UO Museum of Natural and Cultural History, by Davis and Brian Sidlauskas (OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife), seeks to understand the evolutionary differences between Smilo and modern sockeye.

“After each piece has printed, we’ll glue the pieces together, and then use them to form a cast so that additional replicas can be made,” Davis said. “We couldn’t pull a cast from the actual fossil specimen because it’s so fragile, but now we have a way to do that -- and to increase access to this striking animal by researchers, students and the public.”

The Science Library acquired the MakerBot manufactured printer in November of 2013, after Walton had learned about 3-D- printing technology and consulted with Kiersten Muenchinger, dir-ector of the UO Product Design program, about the benefits of housing a printer in the library.

“We both thought it would be great to make this technology available to students and researchers on campus,” Walton said.

Soon after, Science Library head Margaret Bean convened a team of staff members from the UO Libraries and the College of Art and Sciences to gather information and develop a proposal for acquiring a new printer.

“The great thing here is that the library is common ground on campus, so the MakerBot is a resource that all UO community members can use,” Walton said.

The saber-toothed salmon will play a starring role in the MNCH’s upcoming natural history exhibit, “Explore Oregon!” The cast formed from the completed printout will allow the fabrication of a realistic model that visitors to the museum will be able to examine and touch.

Image above. Brian Sidlauskas, Ichthyologist from OSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, and Lee Michaels, recently retired from Oregon Images Centers and MNCH volunteer, preparing the fossil.



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