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Many of the animals in zoos have important jobs that go beyond just hanging around and allowing themselves to be stared at by visitors. Several of them are members of endangered species, and are in the zoo so that they can safely breed and repopulate that species. That is one of the tasks of Patches, a black-breasted leaf turtle at Zoo Knoxville. Patches is about 30 years old and about five and a half inches long, and she has been at the zoo for 10 years so that she can breed. Unfortunately, Patches recently suffered an on-the-job injury.

Last August, zookeepers noticed that Patches had a small puncture by her right nostril. No one knows for sure how the injury happened, but they believe it was likely caused by an over-enthusiastic mate.

“Male turtles are very rambunctious when they are trying to woo a female,” said Michael Ogle, the zoo’s herpetology curator.

The puncture wound became infected and grew to cover part of her face. Although the infection cleared, the hole remained and caused Patches some problems, as moss and dirt would get stuck inside it. Zookeepers treated the wound with antibiotics and topical ointments, cleaning moss and dirt out of the hole with tweezers, cotton swabs and saline solutions. After a year and an examination of micro CT scans, zookeepers and veterinarians at the UT College of Veterinary Medicine started talking about a more permanent solution.

Drs. Andrew Cushing and Kyle Snowdon suggested making Patches a tiny 3D printed mask to keep dirt and moss out of the wound. It would be the first use of 3D printing for such a purpose at the UT College of Veterinary Medicine. Dr. Snowdon made a 3D model using Patches’ CT scans, and 3D printed several possibilities of masks for her to try.

“We had to look at different ways to get to it,” said Dr. Snowdon. “It had to be the right size so the turtle could get its head in its shell. It could not cover the nostrils.”

A model of the mask with a shark fin. [Image: UT College of Veterinary Medicine]

Dr. Snowdon also created a couple of sillier masks as a learning experience – one had a shark fin, another a pair of rhino horns. Perhaps those can be saved for Patches’ Halloween costumes.

In June, the first mask was attached to Patches’ head with adhesive. Unfortunately, it fell off before long. Last month, a much more secure and long-lasting mask was 3D printed and placed on the turtle, held on by a screw that goes through the puncture hole. The screw goes in the top of Patches’ mouth and is secured by a little bit of composite resin. The resin repaired the roof of her mouth, which had also been damaged.

Now Patches has a reputation as the “Phantom of the Turtles” at the zoo. She has also become a University of Tennessee fan – her mask has a tiny UT symbol embossed on it.

“She’s doing great,” Ogle said. “She looks a little odd, but she’s still a good-looking young lady.”

Black-breasted leaf turtles are among the smallest turtles in the world, but Patches’ case proves that there is no creature too small for which to create a custom, perfectly-fitting prosthetic using 3D printing. The technology allowed for a precise fit and thus optimal comfort and function. Turtles can live very long lives, and Patches’ new mask ensures that she can live the rest of hers without further problems caused by her injury. 3D printing has also been used to help other turtles and tortoises, including before they hatch from their eggs and as decoys for predators, patching injured shells and preventing infection, and in the creation of a prosthetic leg and prosthetic jaw.

Discuss this and other 3D printing topics at 3DPrintBoard.com or share your thoughts below.

[Source: Knoxville News Sentinel]

 

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