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Lizard CT scan
A CT scan of the Baberton girdled lizard — Smaug barbertonensis. (Florida Museum of Natural History Photo)

This isn’t your parents’ version of an encyclopedia full of pictures of animals. Researchers at institutions across the country, including the University of Washington, are going high-tech in an effort to shed new light and perspective on thousands of vertebrate specimens.

With a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation, scientists will CT scan 20,000 vertebrates and make the data-rich, 3-D images available online for further examination by other researchers, educators, students and the public, according to the UW. The project is called oVert, short for openVertebrate.

The work coincides with UW’s effort to scan all of the world’s 25,000 fish species, led by Adam Summers, a UW professor of biology and aquatic and fishery sciences. Summers and colleagues have been scanning fish for the past two years using a small CT scanner in a UW lab in Friday Harbor, Wash.

CT scanning works by directing X-rays from every angle at a specimen, “creating thousands of snapshots that a computer stitches together into a detailed 3-D visual replica that can be virtually dissected, layer by layer, to expose cross-sections and internal structures,” UW Today reports.

Snake CT scan
A CT scan of a hognose snake, Heterodon platyrhinos, showing its last two meals: a salamander and a toad. (Florida Museum of Natural History Photo)
Frog CT scan
A CT scan showing the circulatory system of Hypopachus variolosus, the Mexican narrow-mouthed toad. (Florida Museum of Natural History Photo)

Scientists can then view a specimen inside and out and examine its skeleton, muscles, internal organs, parasites, even its stomach contents. They can also 3-D print specimens larger than life.

“Our goal is to provide data that offer a foothold into vertebrate anatomy across the Tree of Life,” said David Blackburn, oVert’s lead principal investigator and associate curator of amphibians and reptiles at the Florida Museum of Natural History. “This is a unique opportunity for museums to have a pretty big reach in terms of the audience that interacts with their collections. We believe oVert will be a transformative project for research and education related to vertebrate biology.”

Lizard 3D print
A 3-D printed skull of a giant girdled lizard, Smaug giganteus. (Florida Museum of Natural History Photo)

More than one quarter of the world’s vertebrate species will be scanned and digitized through the project. Three CT scanners at the UW will focus mainly on digitizing key species in the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture’s collection of 12 million fish specimens, as well as the museum’s large bat collection.

In addition to the UW and University of Florida, scanning will occur at the University of Michigan, Harvard University, Texas A&M University and the Field Museum at the University of Chicago.

Read more details at UW Today.

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