Lemurs Live on Through 3D Scanning Project at Duke Lemur Center

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There are about 100 species of lemurs on Earth today, but if we’re not careful, there could soon be none. Almost all lemur species are facing extinction in the wild thanks to human activities like hunting, mining, and logging, but the Duke Lemur Center is doing its best to make sure that lemurs don’t disappear from the planet forever. The Center is dedicated to research and conservation of these strange animals, as well as their fellow prosimian primates such as lorises and tarsiers. Ideally, none of these species will die out – but if they do, they will still live on in digital form, thanks to the 3D scanning and virtual reality technology the Center has been using.

When an animal at the Center dies, its body is used for research within the facility, and now, thanks to former Duke graduate student Gabriel Yapuncich, anyone will soon be able to study lemur anatomy in detail, without capturing or harming any animals in the process. While Yapuncich was working on his doctorate, he was 3D scanning the bones of present-day primates to see if the measurements of their foot bones could help to determine what their extinct ancestors may have weighed.

Most fossilized primate remains consist of bone fragments; complete or even partial skeletons are relatively rare.

“It seemed like a waste just to scan the foot and send it back,” Yapuncich said. “Once I had a specimen on loan, I tended to scan the whole thing.”

Gabriel Yapuncich (L) and Doug Boyer [Image: Megan Mendenhall]

That led him to a new idea: why not 3D scan the deceased animals at the Duke Lemur Center so that they can be immediately preserved in digital form? Along with assistant professor Doug Boyer, Yapuncich has been doing just that, and soon the 3D scans will be made available on MorphoSource, which has given the public access to digital fossils and other data that they’d likely never be able to see otherwise.

3D scan of Skimmer, a pygmy slow loris

At Duke’s Shared Materials Instrumentation Facility, Yapuncich uses a microCT scanner and a turntable to obtain high-definition images of the lemurs that have been preserved by the Lemur Center. The scans are then transformed into interactive 3D models, which can be digitally dissected with a click of the mouse to view up-close, detailed images of the bones and even cross-sections of individual segments.

The Duke Lemur Center has been around for 50 years, and in that time it has housed and bred more than 4,000 endangered primates. More than 400 cadavers of those primates have been preserved for research in that time. Meanwhile, Yapuncich has scanned more than 100 animals, and those scans can assist many, many more researchers than the cadavers ever can. The center receives dozens of requests every year for cadavers for research, but the specimens can only be transported and handled a limited number of times without damage. The 3D scans, on the other hand, can be used to conduct an infinite number of “dissections” without harming rare physical specimens.

“There aren’t that many [cadavers] available,”” said Duke R&D engineer and microCT specialist Justin Gladman. “If one researcher dissects and destroys one, the next researcher can’t do anything with it. By scanning them in the microCT and creating these beautiful 3-D models, we can digitize the specimens and share them online. Instead of being locked in a museum drawer, they’re freely available.”

[Images: Megan Mendenhall / Design: Jon Fuller]

Because the digitization project is ongoing, the 3D scans aren’t publicly available yet, but when they are, anyone will be able to go to MorphoSource and view scans of animals such as Jonas, a fat-tailed dwarf lemur who was the oldest of his kind when he died in 2015 at age 29, and Merlin, a popular aye-aye at the Center that died in October from a natural toxin in avocados, not previously known to be harmful to lemurs. Merlin’s sudden death, along with those of three of his fellow aye-ayes from the same toxin, was devastating to the Center, but thanks to the 3D scanning project, he’ll be able to help other lemurs well into the future by enabling the detailed, freely accessible research of his kind. Technology may not be able to save the endangered animals themselves, but 3D scanning and 3D printing from the files generated can preserve knowledge of their anatomy. Discuss in the Lemurs forum at 3DPB.com.

[Source: Duke University]

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