Manatees slowly graze underwater in the wild, but very near the surface. They subsist on water grasses, weeds and algae to maintain their massive bodies, and on average, an adult manatee weighs between 800 and 1,200 pounds and can reach 8 to 10 feet in length.
But while they are very large, they actually have very little fat beneath their skin. That lack of protective fat and tissue leaves them exceptionally sensitive to changes in water temperature, so they seek the warmer waters near the surface. Their habits leave them vulnerable to impact injuries and the propellers of boats. In fact, boating collisions are the number one killer of manatees.
Willoughby was an 11-year-old female Caribbean manatee, rescued from the St. Lucie River in Florida after being struck by a watercraft in 2005. Fortunately, she was sent to the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium to recover and live out her life.
It turns out Willoughby didn’t have long to live even after she was saved from her boating accident as veterinarians found she had cervical cancer. She died in 2007 at 15 years old.
So the zookeepers decided to preserve her skeleton to be used for research, and they interred her body in a trough outdoors where it remained for the next six years.
It took a chance meeting between Andrew (Andy) Yoak, a graduate student who teaches a vertebrate anatomy course at the department of Evolution, Ecology and Organismal Biology at Ohio State University, and zoo staff to bring Willoughby out of storage.
Yoak, who worked part time at the zoo as the manager of a raccoon fertility project, heard about the manatee, and the staff asked if he’d be interested in carrying on a research project using her remains.
But as Willoughby was a federally endangered species and manatee ribs are a hot commodity among black marketeers who sell them as “false ivory,” Yoak had to negotiate the project with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Once the paperwork was complete, Yoak found that what remained of was in very rough shape.
He and a team of students were hoping to reassemble her skeleton for display as part of the Tetrapod Collection at the Ohio State University Museum of Biological Diversity.
But they found that a number of the bones of the skeleton were missing — including a shoulder blade and part of the jawbone — and those pieces were critical to the project.
A team, including Yoak’s wife, Kellen Calinger-Yoak, and a group of doctoral students which included his sister, Beth Yoak, decided to 3D print the lost bones.
Beth Yoak used a 3D printer at the OSU engineering school to re-create the missing bones. The project took some 100 hours of cleaning and preparation of the bones and then another 50 hours went into assembling the finished, articulated skeleton.
Do you know of any other projects where researchers have used to 3D printing to help them recreate skeletal animal or human remains? Let us know in the Manatee Skeleton Finished with 3D Printing forum thread on 3DPB.com. Check out more photos, and video of the project, below.
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