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MorphoSource platform uses X-ray images to let researchers study dead specimens

lemur digital museum
Keven Law / Flickr
Why it matters to you

By creating digital replicas of animals, researchers can save money and time on their studies, while preserving endangered species for future generations.

Browse the exhibits in your nearest natural history museum and you will find a medley of different specimens, from contemporary insects to extinct species, microscopic organisms, and even nonbiological artifacts. “They don’t discriminate about what they have in the collection,” evolutionary anthropologist Doug Boyer told Digital Trends. “Any specimen that contributes to the understanding of natural history is accepted.”

Boyer and his team at Duke University are trying to replicate the contents of natural history museums in digital form through MorphoSource. They hope the platform will help preserve the bodies of endangered species for scientists from around the world to study.

“You can say MorphoSource is like a virtual museum,” he said. “Anything you can catalog in a natural history museum you can catalog a 3D version of.”

Boyer’s particular line of research is aimed at understanding the very beginnings of primate evolution, which leads his lab toward studying ancient fossils. However, research has shown that some of today’s most endangered primates have a lot in common with our earliest ancestors.

“Fossils from this early time period are quite a bit similar to the endangered primates of Madagascar,” Boyer said. “In a lot of ways, lemurs are a throwback to the beginning of primate evolution. That means having a good sample of their skeletons, how they vary, and how their anatomy is distinctive is very important to understanding these fossils. So a lot of the work we do focuses on how the life ways of these lemurs are reflected by their skeletons.”

To that end, Boyer’s lab has set out to scan recently deceased primate specimens, such as lemurs and aye-aye, and release the scans to researchers around the world via the MorphoSource platform. In this way, scientists don’t need physical access to the specimens to conduct anatomical studies — they can virtually dissect the animals in the afterlife.

“We realized that if we could create a 3D-virtual replica of these specimens and put them online, people could save a lot of time and money and better document their research data so they wouldn’t have to go to these museums,” Boyer said.

Though MorphoSource is open access, Boyer stressed that it is aimed is research. Nonetheless, anyone will be able to view the digitized animals and download raw data to 3D print the specimens. So far, his lab has partnered with the Duke Lemur Center to compile the largest collection of 3D lemur scans.

Correction: In a previous version of this article, Boyer was quoted as referring to the “light waves” reflected by a lemur’s skeleton. He actually said  “life ways,” as a synonym for “ecological niche.”