3D-scanning project will document the skeletons of 20,000 vertebrates

When it comes to projects involving 3D scanning objects to create virtual catalogs, few projects could hope to match up in ambition to a new collaborative initiative called OpenVertebrate. Officially launching at the start of September, and supported by a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation, OpenVertebrate will seek to CT scan the skeletons and insides of more than 20,000 types of vertebrate over the next four years.

“Believe it or not, the genesis was Twitter,” Adam Summers, a University of Washington researcher working on the project, told Digital Trends. “[Florida Museum of Natural History herpetologist] Dave Blackburn and I had both been posting images from our CT scanning on Twitter, and we were both very happy with the response. We got in touch with each other because we both had big ambitions: He to scan all the frogs and me to scan the fishes. He discovered an NSF program that might fund us and spearheaded the multi-institution proposal that resulted in this funded grant.”

From there, the project grew to include 14 different institutions, all of which will help with the compiling process. All of the vertebrate samples are ones already preserved in U.S. museum collections. Samples will be selected based on quality, then transported to one of six scanning facilities around the country. The scanning takes place using various scanners, ranging from microCT tools for tiny samples through much bigger 6-foot scanners for the larger animals.

“We are focusing on alcohol-preserved specimens,” Edward Stanley, another researcher on the project, told us. “We first take them out of their storage containers, place them in an airtight, sealed bag so they do not dry out, then place them in the CT machine, where they are X-rayed thousands of times in a 360 rotation. A computer then uses these 2D X-rays to work out where the high- and low-density parts of the specimen are, and builds a 3D-density map, which is then sliced up into tomograms, or serial sections. From these sections, we can reconstruct 3D models of internal and external anatomical features.”

As great a research tool as this will be, the really exciting part of the project is the fact that the results will be freely available to everyone.

“Not only will scientists and researchers be able to access these data, but educators, students, and the general public will have free and online access to these data and resulting 3D models for research, education, and non-commercial uses,” Blackburn told us. “All of us, whether you’re six or 86, will be able to see inside some of the rarest, most charismatic, and strangest animals in the world.”