Cleopatra The Tortoise Receives a New 3D Printed Shell In Order to Alleviate Painful Condition


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It’s truly incredible what 3D printing is doing, not only for human beings, but for the animal kingdom as well. Every month here at we cover numerous stories detailing how 3D printing has helped another animal in some way, shape or form. From 3D printed prosthetic limbs and wheeled carts for dogs, to prosthetic devices for turtles and ducks, 3D printing is changing the way otherwise doomed animals are getting around.

While most of our stories are related to mobility, this recent use of 3D printing to alleviate a painful condition suffered by an ailing tortoise named Cleopatra may be the most remarkable animal application yet for this technology.

The story all started in Golden, Colorado, at Canyon Critters Rescue, a company which focuses their efforts on reducing the area’s abandoned critters as well as educating the public about proper and responsible reptile ownership. Nicola “Nico” Novelli, the founder of Canyon Critters, started taking in rescued animals when he worked at the L.A. County Animal Control, in order to save them from euthanization. One animal, a tortoise named Cleopatra, who was living with a painful and perhaps dangerous condition, was among these lucky creatures.

“Tortoises, when they have poor nutrition and people feed them the wrong foods, they get what is called peaking or pyramiding [a metabolic bone disease] on their shell which sticks up and when the tortoises play and mate they climb on each other,” Novelli explained to “When they do that, all the weight falls on those peaks, and wears them out. I wanted to protect those areas because once the shell is worn off they are susceptible to infection and bacteria on the inside.”

Although Novelli was able to fix Cleopatra’s poor diet, he wanted to do more to help the teenage turtle. At one of the public education programs that Novelli holds to support his rescue, he had made comments about an idea that he came up with to 3D print a shell which could be placed over the top of Cleopatra’s own shell for protection. Someone from the Colorado Technical University happened to be in attendance and offered to help him realize this innovative idea.

Roger Henry

Roger Henry

Working with the University, along with the 3D Printing Store in Denver, who 3D scanned Cleopatra’s original shell and donated resources to the project, Novelli’s idea was finally becoming a reality. While the 3D Printing Store scanned and took measurements, the Colorado Technical University assigned the designing of the actual 3D model for the shell to senior Roger Henry, who spent close to 600 hours of his time creating prototypes and tweaking software. Meanwhile, Dr. Lanka Elson, Chair IT at Colorado Technical University, managed the whole initiative.

“The project really took off with the digital scanning providing by Debra Wilcox’s team [at  the 3D Printing Store in Colorado Springs].  They produced an accurate true-to-life 3D digital scan of Cleopatra,” explained Dr. Lanka Elson to ” This data provided exact dimensions, and contours of Cleopatra’s damaged shell.  From this data the 3D model was imported into several 3D modeling software programs, and in turn provided the foundation needed to create the custom shell.  Over twelve different software packages were utilized in the project.  Smaller 25% and 45% scaled models were printed of both the tortoise and the prototype for the prosthetic shell using a MakerBot Replicator 2 printer.  The scaled versions of the 3D prints proved to be invaluable while designing the final printing solution.  Due to the size of the actual shell, the prototype was printed in four parts due to the size limitations of the 3D printing bed.”

Photo taken by Lanka Elson, 2015.

Photo taken by Lanka Elson, 2015.

The entire process was both a learning experience and incredible way to save an animal.

“I am grateful to all these people volunteering their time and energy to help me,” Novelli told “At the rescue I don’t have the resources or funds to do something of this scale. They are doing a great service to me and my rescue.”

Meanwhile, Cleopatra seems to be doing well, not having to worry about other turtles causing her pain, or even worse, introducing an infection through her thinning shell.  The shell will continue to be improved upon, with the addition of some Velcro straps as well as ventilation holes expected shortly.  Still only being in her teens, Cleopatra likely has decades of life remaining.  Noveilli told us that a typical tortoise like her can live well into her 80’s and would be expected to grow in size by another 200-300%.  This means that new shells will eventually have to be printed out as she ages.

Let’s hear you thoughts on this incredible story in the 3D Printed Tortoise Shell forum thread on

The Cleopatra tortoise prosthetic project was a collaborative effort between Colorado Technical University in Colorado Springs, Joe Weisenbach at the 3D Printing Store in Colorado Springs, and Debra Wilcox at the 3D Printing Store in Denver.  Dr. Lanka Elson served as faculty mentor, and Roger Henry served in the role of lead designer.  Roger is a bachelor’s degree student at Colorado Technical University.  He was able to apply his knowledge gained in his degree and this allowed him to create the prosthetic shell design.


Photo taken by Lanka Elson, 2015.


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