Dec 14, 2017 | By David

We’ve reported before on the ways in which educators and researchers of biology, natural history, and many other animal-based fields, have been able to take advantage of the growing accessibility of 3D printing. In combination with 3D scanning, the technology enables all kinds of creatures, including fossilized ones, to be easily modelled in physical form to a very high degree of accuracy. A collaborative project funded by the National Science Foundation has used 3D technology to establish a huge library of over 20,000 vertebrate anatomies, and this library will be freely accessible, for research, education or any other purpose.

The initiative is part of the oVert (Open exploration of vertebrate diversity) project, which is a Thematic Collections Network funded by the NSF. The 3D scanned specimens will be taken from the huge collections of the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute and the Natural History Museum, amongst others. David Blackburn of the University of Florida will be the lead investigator, and the other participating  institutions are Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, California Academy of Sciences, Cornell University, Field Museum of Natural History, Harvard University, Louisiana State University, Scripps Institute of Oceanography, Texas A&M University, University of California - Berkeley, University of Michigan, University of Texas - Austin, University of Washington, Virginia Institute of Marine Science and Yale University.

The CT images will be available at a website called MorphoSource, where they can be viewed, manipulated, or 3D printed, providing the raw data for specific research questions. The University of Kansas will be receiving $88, 000 as part of the grant, and this will go towards funding students whose job it will be to look after the original specimens

According to Luke Welton, collection manager in the Herpetology Division of the Biodiversity Institute and primary investigator for the KU portion of the grant, "During the first year, the researchers across the grant are seeking feedback from the scientific and educational community for what they want—species that will best serve them for outreach and education. Here at KU, we're waiting to get our marching orders. Our herpetology collection, as far as academically based collections, is the second largest behind Michigan, and fourth largest in the U.S., and has huge geographic breadth—one of the largest collections from Central and South America in the world and this year will become the largest repository of Philippines material."

This huge undertaking will require careful archiving and organization, as each specimen must be scanned carefully and put back in place, without causing any damage. The fragility of many of these specimens is one of the reasons that 3D technology is so useful, allowing them to be freely circulated as much as possible, without the originals being touched. The education of many students will also benefit greatly from access to the three-dimensional virtual images and the tactility of the models, as opposed to two-dimensional images in books, and there are some aspects of anatomy that are much easier to explore in physical form.

"You can drag the corners and rotate the 3-D image 360 degrees, or load them into 3D printer software and 3D print that entire specimen for public K-12 education or undergraduate research initiatives," says Welton. "You could model, say, the evolution of horses based on their teeth. Or model something rare, like a monitor lizard such as the little-known Varanus bitatawa or a Sphenodon punctatus, called the Tuatara. People can develop education programs around this physical material—anyone can look in a book but to have that physical thing in front of you opens the door to engage in a way you wouldn't otherwise be able to."

Alongside the archiving, the project is offering yearly teacher-driven workshops to generate lesson plans based on digital and printed 3D volumes that will then be available on MorphoSource. It also plans to carry out some specific research on soft-tissue scans of many of the specimens. This should open up new avenues of research into brain and cranial nerve diversity across vertebrates, as well as facilitating the diagnosis, description and inference of patterns and relationships among extant vertebrates. It will also provide raw material for testing hypotheses of morphological evolution such as disparity, modularity and phenotype-environment interactions, and aid in the development of structure-function models for testing hypotheses about morphological adaptations related to things like feeding and locomotion.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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