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Digital Sea Turtles Swim Across Researchers’ Screens with 3D Scanning Project at UMass Amherst

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3D scanning technology has allowed scientists to begin building databases of 3D models of animal fossils and preserved specimens, leading to some impressive online collections. 3D models created with this technology can be shared openly with the public, so that whoever wants to can log on and study a fossil or other specimen up close on his or her screen. These models can even be 3D printed. 3D scanning equipment has evolved to the point that capturing these images has become quick and easy, allowing researchers to build these databases quickly and thoroughly. It’s not so easy, however, to scan live animals. They move, obviously, and it can be hard to access some of them in their natural habitats.

As challenging as it is to scan living creatures, the Digital Life Project is up to it. The project began at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in November 2016 with the goal of creating a digital “ark” of life on Earth. Imagine having millions of species right at your fingertips, a digital museum that can be pulled up and perused at any time. The Digital Life Project is working to capture 3D scans of all life including animals, plants, and even eggs. The team has developed specialized photogrammetry technology called Beastcam, a customized rig that can capture clear scans of animals of all sizes, even in motion. Beastcam was developed at the lab of UMass Amherst biologist Duncan Irschick, Co-Founder and Director of the Digital Life Project.

Currently, the Digital Life team is focused on sea turtles. There are seven species of sea turtles, and no preserved specimens in good condition exist of any of them, so the team wants to create 3D animated models of them all, so that researchers can study their physiology and movements, test theories about how they swim, and better understand their migration patterns. They can also be 3D printed or used in virtual reality platforms.

Last month, the Digital Life Project released 3D models of two sea turtles: a green sea turtle called Scallywag and a loggerhead sea turtle they named Shelly. Scallywag had been attacked by a shark and was missing one of its front flippers. The turtle was taken in, cared for, and then 3D scanned, capturing all of its details and scars.

“Creating the animal with all its scars was an artistic and technical challenge, but we feel that we were able to reproduce this animal faithfully,” said Jer Bot, a volunteer 3D artist who worked on the project.

Scallywag can now swim about easily, even with a missing flipper. The other turtle, Shelly, was in good health when they found her and was released back into the wild after being scanned. Even though she didn’t have a large scar like Scallywag, she was still a challenge to scan, but the image captured all of her details, including barnacles on her shell.

The Digital Life team along with Bot and fellow 3D artist Johnson Martin animated the sea turtles using software such as Capturing Reality and Blender. They consulted closely with veterinarian Dr. Charles Manire from the Loggerhead Marinelife Center (LMC) and sea turtle biologist Jeannette Wyneken to accurately reconstruct the body shape and limb movements of the turtles during swimming.

Shelly the loggerhead [Image: Christine Shepard]

“The value of these models is substantial, and includes both scientific and educational uses,” said Irschick. “To our knowledge it’s the first time that 3D models of live sea turtles have been created from live animals.”

Animating Scallywag was the greatest challenge yet the most rewarding, according to Bot, because of how the turtle’s motion was altered by the loss of a flipper. The Digital Life Project has also created a 3D model of a hatchling leatherback called Blue, and hopes to make animated models of all seven species of sea turtles over the coming year. All models are free and open for download.

“The models can be downloaded and 3D printed, such as for classroom use,” said Digital Life’s photographer Christine Shepard. “These models can be used by scientists in a computer modeling environment for testing models of migration in sea turtles, or to test different net designs to avoid trapping sea turtles. They can also be used in VR or game-like educational environments, and are available at no cost to educators, scientists, conservationists and others for creative or nonprofit use on the Digital Life website.”

You can donate to support the Digital Life Project here.

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

[Source: University of Massachusetts Amherst]

 

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