Aug 25, 2017 | By Tess

A new collaborative initiative called openVertebrate (oVert) is bringing together experts from various universities to 3D scan and digitally capture all vertebrates. The ambitious 3D scanning project, which will officially launch on September 1, is supported by a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

Funnily enough, the project started off as a kind of “scan-off” between biomechanist and fish expert Adam Summers and Florida Museum of Natural History herpetologist David Blackburn.

Summers, who has been scanning different fish species for two decades, has continually maintained (semi-jokingly) that he will 3D scan all fish species. Blackburn, for his part, came across Summers’ #scanAllFish campaign and responded with the declaration that he would scan all frogs. (You can see where this is going, I’m sure.)

Blackburn reportedly got to talking about the project in a more serious capacity with museum curators and other scientists and eventually the plan to “scan it all” was born. Now, with funding from the National Science Foundation, the whole thing could be feasible.

Scan of a Baberton girdled lizard

The project, now led by Blackburn, will be carried out over the next four years, and will attempt to CT scan over 20,000 types of vertebrates. Of course, 20k isn’t close to the number of existing types of vertebrates that exist, but the vertebrates selected for the scans will reportedly represent about 80 per cent of all genera.

As the project moves forward, 3D scans will be uploaded to MorphoSource, an existing online database hosted by Duke University. Known primarily for its collection of fossil 3D models, the database has the goal of making fossils other biological models more accessible to researchers around the globe.

“The vision is to get specimens off a shelf, into as many hands as possible, and into the context of big-scale research questions," explained Blackburn. The MorphoSource database is free to use, though users require an account to access the 3D models.

A 3D printed model of a giant girdled lizard's skull

As part of the oVert project, 1,000 vertebrates will be chosen to undergo a special type of 3D scanning that will show not only the internal skeleton of the creature, but also its muscles, circulatory system, brain, etc. This is achieved by soaking the vertebrate in an iodine dye, which makes soft tissues more apparent when scanning.

According to the research team, its members will mostly be working with CT scanning technology to capture the 3D scans of the vertebrates, as the technology enables them to capture detailed internal images.

Of course, the type of CT scanning technology will vary depending on the subject—a tiny fish could be captured with a micro-CT scanner, while a larger vertebrate would require a bigger kind of scanner. One of the largest 3D scanning systems, from Texas A&M, can reportedly scan objects up to six feet in length.

Detailed results of a 3D scan using iodine dye

“Our goal is to provide data that offer a foothold into vertebrate anatomy across the Tree of Life,” said Blackburn. “This is a unique opportunity for museums to have a pretty big reach in terms of the audience that interacts with their collections. We believe oVert will be a transformative project for research and education related to vertebrate biology.”

The 3D scanning initiative is bringing together a number of universities, including the University of Florida, the California Academy of Sciences, Harvard University, Texas A&M University, the University of Michigan, the University of Washington, Yale University, and several more. Each participating school will provide 3D scanning equipment and work with various institutions and museums to scan vertebrate samples.

We can't wait to see what types of species they 3D scan. Be sure to check in on MorphoSource to see if they can scan 'em all.

(Images: Florida Museum of Natural History)



Posted in 3D Scanning



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