Mar 16, 2018 | By Benedict

Taxonomists are using 3D microCT (Micro computed tomography) 3D scanners to capture and publish 3D models of hermit crabs. These models, which can also be 3D printed, are helping taxonomists share information and recognize when they discover a new species.

3D scanned Paragiopagarus atkinsonae

(Image: J. Landschoff, A. Du Plessis, C.L. Griffiths)

Hermit crabs (Paguroidea) are fascinating creatures. You probably know them as the sea crustaceans with the asymmetrical pleon and the scavenged sea shell—you might even have seen a hermit crab repurpose some completely alien object as a new shell.

But there’s much more to these amazing animals than their shell. Over 1,100 species and 120 genera of hermit crab have been recognized to date, but there are likely many more out there, some of which are already sitting dormant on museum shelves and in laboratories.

Why is this? Well, because there are so many kinds of hermit crab, it’s not all that easy to know which one you’re looking at—especially when you don’t have all 1,100 already-discovered species close at hand! Moreover, hermit crabs are small and have membranous body parts without many discernible features, which makes their differentiating features incredibly hard to spot.

At present, scientists have to rely on descriptions in literature if they don’t have images or physical specimens to hand, which is only useful to a limited degree.

Excitingly, 3D scanning could be about to radically shake up hermit crab taxonomy. Researchers at the University of Cape Town and Stellenbosch University in South Africa are using microCT (X-ray micro-computed tomography) scanning technology to 3D scan hermit crab samples.

A recent 3D scanning session saw these scientists scan seven hermit crab samples that included three recently described species, one as-yet undescribed species, and two rare species.

“These specimens are too valuable to be shipped and can only be examined by one referee at a time,” explains Jannes Landschoff, first author of a study into the 3D scanning of hermit crabs. “In this process, we used microCT in addition to classical drawings.”

While 3D scanning won’t replace all existing taxonomical practice, Landschoff and the other researchers think the 3D microCT technology will allow huge strides to be taken in the field.

“The scan images provided less subjective data and were particularly suited to provide high-resolution surface images of complicated 3D structures that are difficult to draw,” Landschoff says. “Publishing the dataset also makes the process of assessing whether a species is new to science easier to evaluate, not only in the peer-review process but also in later studies.”

The usefulness of the 3D scans doesn’t end there either: the digitized hermit crabs can also act as a kind of “insurance policy” if the real specimens get damaged or lost.

The 3D scanning of those seven crabs in South Africa has already allowed many experts to check out these fascinating creatures. Because while the physical specimens have been posted to the Iziko South African Museum in Cape Town and the Smithsonian in Washington DC, anyone else in the world can now access the digital 3D models of the hermit crabs via the GigaScience GigaDB repository.

On this repository, the 3D scanned models are available to view in a web browser or download as a 3D printable STL file.

“This study clearly shows the power of the technique and the magnification allows precise identification of surface textures which are often missed in photographs or even in manual drawings,” says senior author Anton Du Plessis.

Check out some of the 3D models and read the study, “A micro X-ray computed tomography dataset of South African hermit crabs (Crustacea: Decapoda: Anomura: Paguroidea),” here.



Posted in 3D Scanning



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