Do you ever come across the name of an animal you’ve never heard before? Whenever that happens to us, we tend to Google them immediately. While a photo might satisfy our own curiosity, they are usually not enough for seasoned biologists studying fin movement, for instance. To help those studies, professor Adam Summers from the University of Washington is working on a truly remarkable undertaking: to build a database of 3D printable digital models of all 25,000 fish species in the world – and he’s targeting all 50,000 vertebrates next.
This is a truly remarkable project, that has actually been going on for two decades. Professor Summers, who teaches biology and aquatic and fishery sciences in Washington, has been working on 3D scanning fish since the 1990s. As he revealed, this isn’t just some idiosyncratic hobby, but is all about accessibility. When studying animals, you can’t exactly keep live creatures around all the time, while photos tend to hide a lot of crucial info. A 3D model, in contrast, can be studied from all angles and even 3D printed to be held. “These 3D scans are transforming the way we think about 3D data and accessibility,” the professor explained.
On paper, this could thus be a very useful project that can help scientists, teachers, students and even amateur ichthyologists to study the exact details of a fish’s skeleton. It can doubtlessly increase our understanding of why certain skulls, for instance, are shaped the way they are. “It’s been so fun to throw this data up on the web and have people actually use it,” Summers said. The project itself is unprecedented, and Summers recalled having to beg institutes for permission to study specimens in the past.
But whichever way you look at it, this is a truly ambitious project as there are nearly 25,000 species of fish on our planet – many living in the most inhospitable corners of the world’s oceans. But the optimistic Summers has nonetheless been spending his hours in a lab with a CT scanner, scanning specimens from museum collections from all over the world. The machine itself is comparable to CT scanners used in hospitals, and produces a series of X-ray images that are stitched together to create a 3D rendering.
What’s more, the project is picking up steam. In the past, 3D scanning was very expensive – costing anywhere from $500 to $2,000 per batch of animals. Fortunately, Summers and his team managed to raise the necessary $340,000 needed to purchase their own 3D scanner, which has been in operation since November and is open to everyone who wants to 3D scan fish from museum-accessioned collections.
Since then, researchers from all over the world have come to his lab to scan specimens, with the digital models being stored in a database and made available online. Among others, fish from the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, the National Academy of Sciences in Philadelphia, Ohio State University, Western Australian Museum and many others are already available. “We just make it a group effort to get everything done,” Summers said. “Having this scanner has made it clear to me the incredible power of this system if you think about it the right way.”
So far, about 515 digital models can be found in the Open Science Framework and Summers expects it will take up to three years to complete the full list of 25,000 species. In part, that short time frame is expected because Summers has started scanning multiple fish at once – all packed together into a cylinder. Scanning doesn’t even take place at the highest resolution, but presents more than enough detail. “The way transformative ideas do, these just instantly changed the way we think about scanning specimens,” Summers said. “We went from, ‘Is this possible?’ to scanning whole series of fishes quickly.”
What’s more, the existing models are already very well received, as they allow scientists to zoom in on specific aspects of anatomy from different angles and are perfectly 3D printable. These early successes with the new 3D scanner have even already convinced Summer to look to the future – when he wants to scan all 50,000 vertebrate species. And with just few more CT scanners, he believes, that should be possible within just a few years from now. At this pace, 3D printing could fundamentally change field of biology forever.