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OU professor, O’Bleness team up for research

Special to The Messenger

[This story originally appeared in the May 20, 2008 issue of
The Athens Messenger]

Messenger photo | Katelyn Schlosser
Ohio University professor Larry Witmer prepares a rhinoceros head for a CAT scan at O’Bleness Memorial Hospital. It was filmed by a crew from National Geographic.

Ohio University professor Larry Witmer's research on dinosaurs has
drawn national and international attention, but lesser known is the role
that O'Bleness Memorial Hospital has played in his research.

Late Saturday afternoon, a film crew from National Geographic visited
the Athens hospital to document research by Witmer as he, students
and hospital employees conducted a CAT scan on the head of a rhinoceros.

Witmer has used the scanning equipment at O'Bleness since 1996 to
peer inside the skulls of not only modern animals, but those of
dinosaurs as well. National Geographic, which was filming Saturday's
CAT scan as part of a special on bizarre dinosaurs to air next year,
isn't the first film crew to visit O'Bleness. The BBC, the History and
Discovery Channels and crews from Japan and Germany have been
to the hospital to record the scanning process Witmer and O'Bleness employee Heather Rockhold routinely conduct at the hospital.

"You never know quite what he'll bring in," said Rockhold, who has provided her technical skills to Witmer's research for the past nine

"It never ceases to amaze me on the national and international credit
he receives," Rockhold said of Witmer's research. "I just give him the data."

Witmer said Rockhold's expertise has greatly added his research.

"Over the years she has gained incredible expertise with scanning all kinds
of objects, including rhinoceros skulls," he said.

Giving a CAT scan to a rhinoceros head or to a skull of a dinosaur
fossil millions of years old has taught Rockhold many things, including improving her technical skills for use on human patients at the hospital, she said.

"It makes me nervous sometimes," Rockhold said. "I'm used to the
high-end anxiety of patients, but the specimens he gets, like a
dinosaur skull millions of years old, is really something else."

Use of the scanning equipment, always after hours and on weekends
so as not to interfere with hospital patient care, enables Witmer to learn
about the insides of skulls to further his research, Rockhold said.

Witmer uses the CAT scans to delve into the skulls of dinosaurs to
learn more about the original soft tissue that no longer exists in a fossil.

"Using x-rays helps us to peer through the rock and skull to look
inside," he said.

CAT scans and similar technology are non-evasive on patients, and the
same holds true to the study of dinosaurs, which Witmer refers to as
non-evasive paleontology.

"We can peer into a fossil millions of years old without having to damage it," Witmer said. "It changes the way we view fossils."

By converting the scans into computer images, Witmer and his students
can construct computer models of the interiors of dinosaur heads to
learn about their brains, ear construction, nasal passages and a host of
other information. Learning more about the inner skull can provide a
better understanding of dinosaurs as living and breathing animals, he

Using modern day animals, like a rhinoceros, the scanning helps
explain the layout of soft tissues, as well as nasal and bone structure
which relate to dinosaur fossils, Witmer said. Saturday's scanning
involved a study into how the rhino horn connects and functions with the
skull bone, he said, which is important because of the animal's similar size
to many dinosaurs.

Witmer, professor of anatomy and the Chang Ying-Chien professor of paleontology at OU's College of Osteopathic Medicine's Department of Biomedical Sciences, called Saturday's scanning "very successful."

"We collected a lot of real data that shows some real interesting things
about rhinos," Witmer said. The rhino used in the experiment died a natural death, of cancer.

As for conducting research with a film crew recording the work, Witmer said such exposure passes along to the world the information he and
his students are learning.

"Part of my mission is to have our findings presented to the people who paid for it, the taxpayers," he said. Witmer's research is funded through the National Science Foundation. "It's important to share our results
with the general public."
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Last updated: 01/28/2016