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New Zealand Scientists Bring Extinct Birds Back Through 3D Scanning

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Adzebill skeleton

The extinction of a species is a heartbreaking thought, especially when you consider that some of our most beloved species, like monarch butterflies, frogs and toads, and bats are threatened, by disease or climate change, to the point that they may not be around for our grandchildren to see. Someday, they may only exist in museums, as remote to humans as moa and adzebills.

Say what now? Yes, moa and adzebills existed once, but the flightless birds have been extinct for thousands of years. You may never have heard of them (I certainly hadn’t) but a collaboration between scientists at Massey University, the Auckland War Memorial Museum and the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa is bringing them back to life. Okay, not literally bringing them back to life – stop your Jurassic Park fantasies – but thanks to 3D scanning, the birds, along with several other of New Zealand’s extinct bird species, are being made more real than they have been for a long time.

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Artist’s rendition of an extinct Haast’s Eagle, left, hunting moa. [Credit: John Megahan, Creative Commons licence]

As part of an ongoing project to make museum collections more accessible, the bones of the extinct birds will be scanned at the Museum of New Zealand this week. The project, led by Massey University ornithologist Dr. Daniel Thomas, is a collaboration between the three institutions to share their collections and make them available to the public through 3D modeling. Dr. Thomas, along with Auckland Museum Natural Sciences Collections Manager Jason Froggatt, has been working on an in-depth digital reconstruction of a moa skeleton as part of Evolution in Isolation, a digital gallery of New Zealand’s past and present wildlife.

“We are going to see more of this in New Zealand,” said Dr. Thomas. “For a while now, researchers have used CT scanners to make digital versions of 3D bones, but few museums have this technology in-house. The 3D scanner we have is portable, so it can be brought into museum collections.”

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Alan Tennyson

The birds whose bones will be scanned this week include the adzebill, the Haast’s Eagle, and the Forbes Harrier. Right now they’re just names to most laypeople, but their digital models will make their features, like the adzebill’s weaponized beak or the harrier’s long legs, memorable. The scanning project is part of a growing trend in museums and research institutions to scan, digitally model and print bones and fossils so that they can be more closely studied and easily shared with the public.

“Technology like 3D printing is the way of the future, and will help to ensure precious objects, like bones from long extinct birds, are protected while still being fully accessible to the public,” said Alan Tennyson, vertebrate curator at the Museum of New Zealand.

Since the collaboration also involves sharing and exchanging exhibits, fossils at Auckland Museum will be scanned later this year and sent to the Museum of New Zealand. It’s amazing to think about, really, that something as rare as an ancient fossil can be so easily copied in perfect detail. It’s also amazing to think that long-dead species can be reconstructed. Below, you can play with a little bush moa – I bet that’s never something you imagined yourself doing, is it?  Discuss this story in the 3D Printing Extinct Birds forum on 3DPB.com.

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