Sergio Azevedo of the National Museum of Brazil says he began to develop the technique after discovering the fossilized bones of an unknown animal in Sao Paulo state.
"Many times when you find a fossil in the field it's impossible to determine how much of the ancient animal you have," he says. "Sometimes you have just part of a bone or a tooth."
Azevedo came up with a solution to this perennial problem -- which also created a backup plan should a stray hammer stroke destroy an ancient fossil during excavation -- NewScientist.com reported Wednesday.
The solution? Just scan it and print it, Azevedo decided.
The museum team used a portable CT scanner to image the fossil in the ground, and then excavated a large section of rock to take back to the lab.
Once back at the museum, the encased fossil was imaged using a more powerful scanner and a 3D replica printed out in resin.
"This gives us safe access to the inner structures usually not accessible to conventional paleontology," Azevedo said.
The fossil he had found in Sao Paulo turned out to be a new species, a 75-million-year-old extinct crocodile.
"3D printing will be a step change in the science of paleontology once the costs come down," said paleontologist Louise Leakey, who runs a virtual fossil museum, AfricanFossils.org.